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Self-Awareness and Language: Saying “Yes” to “No”

The arrival of the toddler: language, self-awareness, and mobility.

In our recent newsletters, we have focused on the transition from infant to toddler. We suggested that three important aspects of development occur during this period, which can help us understand toddlers. To summarize, at about 18 months (range around 1-3 years), three issues emerge to herald the arrival of the toddler: language, self-awareness, and mobility.

In the midst of the onset of language, it is useful to recognize that a normal part of a child’s developmental process is the struggle to establish himself or herself as an independent, autonomous person… someone separate from the parents, and someone with feelings and opinions that are distinct and sometimes in conflict with the parents’ own feelings and wishes. This increasing separateness and self-awareness often come in this package: "No!"

We bring this topic up now because it is so connected to language. The well-known psychoanalyst John Gedo, M.D., put it this way: "Self-awareness is only achieved toward the end of the second year of life, in parallel with the acquisition of verbal communication."

He further elaborated on this theme of language and self-awareness by commenting on the significance of putting words into feelings: "At this stage, children also become capable of learning a system of symbols for the affects; as a result, they are enabled to achieve emotional self-awareness."

The Importance of “No”

The arrival of the word "no" is often seen as an announcement that the terrible twos have arrived. But strange as it may seem, "no" is a wonderful word for your child to acquire. Rene Spitz was a remarkable physician who detected the profound effects of emotional deprivation on children in orphanages in the 1940s and 1950s.

In his book, No and Yes: On the Genesis of Human Communication, he highlighted the developmental significance of the child being able to say "no." Contrary to popular opinion, parents can welcome the no's, because no's are the beginning of the child's defining him- or herself: I am or am not; you are or are not; yes or no; good or bad. These are clearly etched concepts—a binary yes or no—and this is how a child first sees the world and defines her place in it.

Why does your child say "no" so much?

One reason is that she hears “no” so much! In addition, “no” is a much easier way to indicate what she doesn't like. She just doesn't have the words or the capacity early on to provide a complex explanation.

Actually, it tends to be much easier for most of us as adults to say what we don't like rather than what we do like. To say what one does like is a more complex transaction. It means identifying a wish and verbalizing it. That's often not easy, even for an adult.

When presented with a list of options, many people tend to make a decision by excluding the least favorable ones. So when a very young child says "no,” she is trying to tell you her choice and let you know who she is and what she likes and doesn't like.

Research, Language, and Encouragement

Sometimes parents end up saying "no" too often. Hart and Risley studied language interactions among 42 children and their parents. They discovered an astounding factor that linked stunted word use on the part of parents to later reduced achievement by the children. From their massive data accumulation, they estimated the following:

"The average child in a professional family was accumulating 32 affirmatives and 5 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 6 encouragements to 1 discouragement. The average child in a working-class family was accumulating 12 affirmatives and 7 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 2 encouragements to 1 discouragement. The average child in a welfare family, though, was accumulating five affirmatives and 11 prohibitions per hour, a ratio of 1 encouragement to 2 discouragements. In a 5,200-hour year, that would be 166,000 encouragements to 26,000 discouragements in a professional family, 62,000 encouragements to 36,000 discouragements in a working-class family, and 26,000 encouragements to 57,000 discouragements in a welfare family."

Let's summarize all this. Upper socioeconomic status (SES) households used a ratio of 6 encouragements to 1 prohibition in speaking to the children. Middle SES households had 2 encouragements to 1 discouragement. And, stunningly, lower SES families showed 1 encouragement to 2 discouragements in dealing with children. The causes of this discrepancy are not clear; there are many possible explanations. Nor are the short-term or long-term effects of this difference in encouragement clear.

However, a picture begins to emerge: higher SES families use more words, and those children have greater vocabularies that grow at a faster rate than in lower SES families. It would appear that the home environment is crucial—more important than any intervention. So, again, the mantra might be: "Use words early and often!"

The data on encouraging/discouraging communications are complex. Yet, at the most basic level, they are consistent with the idea of nurturing and encouraging the child, which is an outgrowth of the psychology of feelings presented here and in What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: Maximize the positive feelings and minimize the causes (but not the expression) of the negative feelings.

Specifically, the goal is to encourage a feeling of interest (curiosity). It is interest that drives learning, exploration, and creativity, and we do not want to inhibit that!

Words and Socialization—An Example

The constant barrage of "no" can seem tame, however, compared to the difficulty some parents have in teaching their children to speak politely. "Please" and "thank you" are somewhat easier to get them to say than it is to stop them from saying shut up, or swearing, or calling someone a dummy. What to do?

Children respond more positively and quickly to information and recognition of their feelings. For example, if a child is nasty to grandma whenever she comes over to babysit, it will not work very well to order the child to stop it or punish the child for saying rude things.

Again, step back and ask yourself: What is going on here? What are the feelings? The answer—distress and anger. What about? Ah, that’s the nugget you want to get to. And your child isn’t going to be able to tell you—he/she doesn’t yet have the capacity to articulate it. You have to think about it, figure it out.

What is the situation? Grandma (or a babysitter) comes whenever Mom and Dad are going out. Maybe the child is really angry that the parents are leaving and targets Grandma because she is a sign of this distressing reality.

The parent needs to recognize the child’s feelings and label them. "I know it is distressing when Gram comes over because it means Mom and Dad are leaving. But tell me that you are angry at me and are unhappy that I am leaving. I understand that… and it's OK to get mad at me! Please don't tell Gram that you hate her. It upsets her, and you are especially mad at me, not her. She's not the cause of your upset—you're distressed because I'm leaving, and she's the substitute. She's 'not-Mom!' Does that make sense?"

You’ll be amazed at how much calmer a child feels when the real emotions are out in the open. And then you can find a solution together. In these circumstances, I once heard a child capture it all by saying to her grandmother: "Sometimes I like you!"

"Bad Words"—Reach for the Dictionary

How about the problem of so-called "bad words"? As your child hears and speaks words, inevitably she will say what many parents feel are "bad" words: hate, damn, crap, and so on. In the past, some caregivers might have "washed the child's mouth out with soap," put Tabasco sauce on his tongue, or, at the very least, impressed upon the child that "we don't use those words around here!"

However, there are problems with this approach: First, it uses fear and shame to obtain behavioral compliance; and, second, it creates an inhibitory process in general around the learning and speaking of words and language.

What's the solution? Easy! "Reach for the dictionary, not for the soap!" Remember, the brain is a stimulus-seeking, information-processing organ. You can enlarge your child's vocabulary and fund of knowledge by looking up these words with him/her. The synonyms for "crap" are defecation, excrement, nonsense, worthless.

Often these "bad words" reflect intense feelings ("Damn!" "Crap!"), so you have another opportunity to label the feelings—distress, anger, and so on. This kind of discussion reduces the charge and takes away the shock value of the so-called "bad word." You can then work on socializing your child, helping her understand better what words to use when and where.

Powerful Words: Please, Thank You, I’m Sorry

Another opportunity created by the onset of language involves helping your child realize the power of "please," "thank you," and "I'm sorry." The world responds so much better to a child who readily says please, thank you, and can appropriately apologize. And how can a parent accomplish this? By saying these words to your child!

Please say "please" and "thank you!" Please don't just order your child around… give reasons when you can. She will do as you do—she will identify with you! Use "please" and "thank you," and please don't forget to apologize to her—this way, she'll learn that skill too!