This is the kind of behaviour which I have seen in lot of kids including mine (2 year old).

When I tell him NOT to hold a knife, he will make sure he does it. If I tell him not to spill milk on the floor, he will drop the glass at that very moment.

I am little confused as to how to stop such a behaviour. I know we should always "scold" our kids if they are doing wrong. But with such a tendency, they will always do what we avoid them to do.

What is the right way to tackle such a behaviour?

  • 1
    Because they are humans with their own free will. 'tis human nature.
    – DA01
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 17:34
  • 4
    Because they are little scientists and they want to find out what happens if they do :)
    – Benjol
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 8:16

8 Answers 8


I'm not a psychologist, but I've often heard, that from psychological point of view the "No" or negation in the heard words is subconsciously overheard, so if you tell you child "don't hold the knife", what passes through to its brain is only "hold the knife". (I think I read that e. g. in the book "The Secret of Happy Children" by Steve Biddulph)

The solution is to use positive expressions instead of negative ones.
This is often difficult and sometimes seems impossible to me, but very often it works:

  • I think it is better to say "be careful" than "don't bang your head on that sharp edge and injure yourself so that we'll have to go to the hospital"!
  • Say "hold the glass carefully" rather than "don't drop it".
  • Say "the knife always stays on the table" rather than "don't touch the knife".
  • Say "always stay on the sidewalk" rather than "Never go on the road".

I also heard about this kind of "positive" programming when talking to yourself (loudly or "in your head"): e. g. if your driving your car and you are tired and you tell yourself "Don't get off the road!", you will more likely really get off the road than if you tell yourself "stay on the road!"

  • 4
    +1, I've heard of the same principle. Attention = encouragement. Negative attention = same encouragement. We also try to use only positive statements. "Hold the glass carefully" rather than "don't drop it". As for "don't touch the knife", you could say "the knife always stays on the table". "Never go on the road" becomes "always stay on the sidewalk." Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 10:18
  • @Torben - we always do the same. It gives a really positive message to the children!
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 10:51
  • At what age is this supposed to be true? My own daughter will be 3 in a few months, and when I tell her not to do something, she reassures me that she won't do it. Often though, such assurances are "optimistic", but it's clear that she understands what is expected. Her willingness to push boundaries as well reflects what she expects the consequences will be. She's much more likely to turn the volume up on Mickey Mouse than she is to attempt to hold a knife or run out in the street. I'm glad I don't have to teach her newspeak to parent her properly, seems bizarre.
    – John O
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 20:16
  • Right so, "Make sure the knife is in the right place (table top)!" and "Make sure you get all the milk in your mouth!"
    – bobobobo
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 20:27
  • 1
    I agree with this overall, but I find that the vague phrase "be careful" does not help much, and is not very directed at anything in particular. Does a small child really know what it means to take care? Is there a specific hazard they should be avoiding? My daughter stubbed her toe on something left on the floor the other day because she was "being careful" not to spill cereal from the bowl she was carrying.
    – AdamV
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 13:10

BBM's answer is excellent, but I just thought I would add a bit about independence. As children grow up, begin developing independence, and start becoming responsible for their actions, they may come up with their own unique way of learning what "the rules" are that go along with independence and responsibility. Without rules, everyone's independence would infringe on everyone else's independence and there would be chaos. Children don't intuitively understand the need for rules at first, they just hear you tell them something they shouldn't do.

Perhaps this response--deliberately engaging in explicitly forbidden behavior--is simply one way they are testing the waters. Why shouldn't I hold the knife? What will happen if I hold the knife? We know the answers to these questions, and we hope that we can spare our children the pain of learning these answers for themselves by experience. Realize that this type of disobedience does not necessarily indicate any failure on your part as a parent.

Children are extremely sensitive to inconsistency and hypocrisy, so trust may be your biggest ally in this struggle (and remember that trust takes time to develop). For example, if you tell them not to hold a knife and then they see you holding the knife later, think of how the child will perceive that. We understand that this is not inconsistent and hypocritical, but they might not. As others have suggested, we need to be careful about the words we use when telling our kids what not to do.

My suggestion is just to be as consistent as possible with the things you tell them not to do and with enforcing consequences for disobedience. It takes time for children to learn why they shouldn't do certain things, and we may wish they would just recognize and trust our experience in the mean time, but we must be patient with them as they learn. Being consistent (both in terms of "words in line with actions" and "consistent in every case") is one of the best things your can do to help this learning process.

  • +1 very good point. Our son also has an especially strong desire to be independent and to take his own decision. BTW thanks for the compliment :-)
    – BBM
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 18:39

I think all of you are right about phrasing things in a positive way, however, the result might still be that the child does it in which case, especially when danger is involved (ie-the knife or the road) age appropriate punitive measures must be employed.

Different ones work for different kids, sometimes trial and error is the only way to find out what works for your child. Also, the severity of the act (in terms of how dangerous it is) applies here as well.

1) time out (one minute per year of age) works/ed for 2 of my 4 kids. (My youngest is too young to respond to it and my second just doesn't care if she is in time out. My eldest, who time out worked for when she was younger, she is now 7, puts her self in time out now when she knows she is on the verge of getting into a situation which is not good; in adult language we would call this alone time).

2)If the situation is truely dangerous (ie- my 3 year old son crossed the street on his own) immediate action must be taken and therefore time out won't work as it probably can't be done right then. I never have hit or spanked my kids, however, when he did this I did give him a swat on the tush. I am sure it did not hurt, however he cried and after he was done crying I asked him what mistake he made and he told me he is not allowed to cross the street alone. I asked him why this is a rule and he said that cars can't see him, so he could get hurt (this is the why we had told him before, it was nice to know he was listening).

3)With my 4 year old who does not respond to time out we have used either removing her from the room (sort of like time out but she can come back when she is ready to tell us her mistake) or having her stand in front of us and discussing with her (usually in a long drawn out manner in order for it to feel not nice instead of like attention) what the mistake was and why it was not a good idea.

4) with all my kids we only use the above as a last resort, prior to the unwanted behavior our house it really run on sticker charts. The kids work on one or two behaviors at a time and get stickers on their chart when they listen the first time, or play with more kids at school (not just their best friend), or learning to go pishy in the potty, or going to bed nicely, etc. HOWEVER, this does not work with dangerous behavior.

I would like to repeat that these are done after we have made the positive statement about the behavior we would like to see and the behavior is done anyway.

  • I like the idea of the sticker charts. +1
    – meetpd
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 4:31

I think it stems from their lack of experience. Think of something complex you have learned recently. Now imagine how much more difficult it would be to learn if it was taught to you only in terms of what not to do. Things like avoiding danger or a mess seem like common sense to us now, but at one point we all struggled to learn those behaviors.

My son is four and a half now and able to stop things if we tell him, but he still just "freezes" if we tell him not to do something. We can't just say, "stop bothering your sister," because he has no idea what to do instead. We have to say, "go play with your toy cars." It goes against our nature a little bit, because parents want to establish boundaries but mostly let their kids direct their own play. However, sometimes you just have to nudge them in the right direction.

Also, to specifically address things like spilling milk, it often helps to set the boundaries farther back from the edge. Instead of just telling them to be careful with the milk, only let them drink when they are focused and sitting down somewhere safe, etc.


I think this is a stage of language development, the understanding of the concept of adding "not" to a phrase. Several times, with my toddler, I think instead of defience or anything due to positive/negative reinforcement, he simply doesn't understand the "don't" command. He hears, "Don't touch the knife," and understands I want him to do something with the knife, but not necessarily what I want him to do, so he grabs it.

One command that I have tried to change when I use it is about throwing food on the floor. I used to say, "Don't throw your food on the floor." That doesn't communicate very clearly to a toddler and doesn't tell him what to do with the food. Now I try to remember to say, "Put the food in your mouth," or "Put the food to the side if you don't want it."

My reasoning for why this is may be wrong, but I work at a daycare for toddlers, and have seen with them and with my own that telling them specifically what to do instead of what not to do works much better.

  • I agree with you Rachel.
    – meetpd
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 4:41

I can think about two reasons: 1) If you forbid something without explaining WHY you did it - it is natural that the kid wants to know the reason and the only way for him to know it is to do forbidden thing.

2) A person who is forbidden from something feels humiliated. Humiliated state (mood) of mind is discomforting. To stop being discomforted one has to violate the prohibition.

Personally I think that the second reason is more plausible, because it works on lower level of consciousness.

  • I doubt that toddlers are able to feel humiliated. Older kids and adults -- yes! Your reason 1) sounds more plausible to me. Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 21:27

Thats a great question. I heard that when you'r saying something not to do like "don't go down the stapes" the mind misses the word 'don't' and it takes GO DOWN..... So the best way of dealing with people is to say what to do like "stay here, put down the knife" instead of saying DON'T go down, DON'T touch the knife.


Simple answer: Defiance is a sport for toddlers. The more you tell them not to do something while they are doing it, the more they will do it. And they will look directly at you with a big mischievous smile and laugh.

Don't let this anger you or take it as a sign of disrespect. They are feeding off you telling them not to do it, so just don't feed their defiance. In the knife example, all that's left is to take away the knife so the toddler can't harm himself/herself. The only way the toddler will learn not to play with the knife is to forget about the knife and not have access to it.

(I have a two-year-old son.)

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