‘No’ and ‘stop’ are two of the most important words children need to learn and understand from a young age and yet, today, they are two of the most misunderstood.

They are words that can save children from a lot of pain and trouble – even saving their life or preventing them from acquiring a criminal record. Here are few situations where ‘no’ and ‘stop’ need to be totally unambiguous:

  • When babies are sticking their fingers into plug points
  • When toddlers are pulling on the cord of a hot iron or kettle
  • When toddlers are about to touch a hot oil heater or kettle braai
  • When young children run across a busy road

For the most part, this is where we usually get our parenting right, because their lives are actually at stake and there is nothing we wouldn’t say or do to stop our children from being burnt, electrocuted or run over. In these situations we speak or shout clearly, we don’t lecture, we don’t give them another option, our tone of voice is totally authoritative and our bodies are moving forward – we are taking action, we mean business – and children get the message loud and clear.

But, when it’s not a life or death situation, we tend to give our children mixed signals, confusing them about whether we actually mean ‘no’ or ‘stop’. We find ourselves making empty threats, nagging or lecturing, and not following through with the consequences we have laid out. We all do it. I have just found myself telling my children to switch off the television and pack the dishwasher, and there was no response. I said it three times and there was still no response. Clearly they didn’t think I was serious until I moved forward and switched off the television.

If children don’t know where the cut-off point is they can get away with murder and they won’t take you seriously.

“When we use the words ‘no’ or ‘stop’ we need to be assertive and commanding. They are words that need to mean something in all situations, or rather don’t use them at all,” says veteran parenting educator Dereck Jackson who specialises in discipline issues. “If the situation doesn’t warrant assertiveness, then rather use the art of distraction if your child is doing something you don’t want him or her to do. Save ‘no’ or ‘stop’ for the right moments so that your child is always clear as to their meaning.

A child who doesn’t understand that ‘no means no, right now’ and ‘stop means stop, this very minute’, may well land up in a sexual situation one day where they overstep the verbal boundary and what started out as the beginnings of a sexual encounter could turn into rape. What about taking chances in the traffic, with or without the influence of alcohol? These life-changing situations will all hang in the balance, depending on whether your children really do understand that ‘no means no and stop means stop’. So do it right, from the start, and save a whole lot of pain and angst later. If you are not clear about the meaning of these words, they won’t be either.