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Alternatives to “No”

By Amalah

I am pretty confident that you are REALLY uniquely qualified to answer this one: It’s about the name “Noah.” Sort of. See, I have a Noah too. He’s 15 months old and walking and oh my gosh, I am expecting our first ER visit any day now. The kid is a TORNADO of destruction and zero common sense.

So I’m finding myself saying “NO!” to him a lot. Really, really a lot. Which probably isn’t a good thing anyway, but it’s the only thing my brain can come up with during the split second before he drops my cell phone in the toilet.

But…did you have problems with your Noah getting confused between his name and the word no? I think that’s what happening a lot of the time. I can only get my Noah’s attention if I really raise my voice and I don’t want to that mom who yells but I also don’t want a child who doesn’t recognize boundaries and rules and oh, I don’t know, basic safety precautions against killing himself. (I’m joking, sort of. We have babyproofed our house as well as we can but I still feel like the word “NO” is coming out of my mouth constantly these days.) I also don’t want him to hear his name and automatically assume he’s being scolded.

Is there something else I could be saying that’s further away from his name? Am I imagining this and it’s really that he’s just ignoring me?

Mom to Yet Another Noah

P.S. I realize the appeal of this question could be a little too narrow, though Noah IS a pretty popular name these days. But I figure I’m not the only broken record out there in search of an alternative to the endless “no’s.”

Yes, yes, yes. I remember this stage! I remember it so well and we’re just starting to go through it again with my second son, Ezra. No! No! Nobabynononooooo!

And while Selective Toddler Hearing Especially In Regards To Mama is a very real and true phenomenon, I definitely noticed that Noah would sometimes get confused when his name was called. Like he’d yank his hand back from a toy because what? What did I do now? And yet when it really MATTERED, he ignored the word “no” completely.
But no matter what your child’s name is, it’s always a good idea to use the word judiciously. You’re going to hear it parroted back to you A LOT in the toddler years, so it’s best not to give them a head start on learning to overuse it.

Even at this non-verbal stage, your son can understand a lot of what you say, so rephrasing (especially when it’s NOT a dangerous situation, but one about boundaries and rules) is a better habit to get into. Instead of “NO! Don’t throw balls inside!” you say something like, “Let’s take the ball OUTSIDE” or “Let’s ROLL the ball instead.” Emphasizing one simple key word helps. Even if he doesn’t understand all of it, you’ll feel better as a mother if you find yourself TALKING to him instead of barking out reprimands.

When it IS a dangerous situation, like touching the stove or scissors or running out in the street, try using words like STOP, FREEZE, DANGER, SAFETY, HOT, etc. (Freeze is a super-useful one for later, especially if you can get him to mimic a “frozen” stance or practice it as a green-light-red-light game.) And this is the time to break out the Mama Means Business tone of voice, not when you’re simply frustrated because he keeps trying to stick toys in your coffee cup.

All easier said than done, I KNOW. It’s a hard habit to break, because sometimes that word is just always the first one on the tip of your tongue. I’m particularly bad at picking my battles, too. Like…Ezra wants to feed some of his macaroni and cheese to the dog. While I would really rather he not throw food on the floor on principle, is it really the end of the world when the dog will probably snarf it all down before it even hits the ground? Eh, probably not, so I should just keep my mouth shut and try to redirect him instead, like getting him to feed it to me, or making macaroni airplanes fly into his mouth. Sometimes it’s waaaay more about my patience level than his actual behavior, you know?

To help Noah pay attention to the distinction between his name and “no,” we added a “thank you” to the phrase and emphasized that with our voices. “No THANK YOU, Noah.” Pretty soon “no THANK YOU” became our default phrase. Don’t get me wrong, we still probably overuse it with both of the boys and should do the rephrasing thing more, but at least it 1) gets Noah’s attention faster, and 2) makes me feel like at least I’m a POLITE broken record.

(I wish I could add 3) Noah always says “no thank you” as well, but haaaaaaa. No. Oddly, he’ll tell his brother “no thank you” when trying to wrestle back a stolen toy, which I think is pretty cute. But we still get the fire-y toddler-and-preschooler NOOOOOO’s of rage and indignation more often than not.)

Photo by peasap

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Diane

    September 25, 2009 at 10:23 am

    We’ve had a lot of luck with “UH-OH!” as replacement for “no” when it is something less important. (So, “UH-OH!” for starting to pull books off a shelf, and “NO!” when running toward the street.)

  • margie

    September 25, 2009 at 11:48 am

    In our house it’s called Sudden Mother Deafness, and sadly, it doesn’t go away even when your youngest is in college. Somewhat related to Husband Refrigerator Blindness . . .

  • HereWeGoAJen

    September 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    A friend of mine taught her toddler the phrase “back away” which I think is genius. If you think about it, no is a pretty abstract concept. But back away gives the child something to actually do, which distracts him from whatever it was that he was doing.

  • Monica

    September 25, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    If it has to be an urgent “NO!” I clap my hands while saying no to get their attention. (3 year old twins). I’m guessing you don’t clap your hands when you say “Noah”, so clapping is a way to make the “NO” distinctive from Noah.

  • Me

    September 25, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    We had a black lab named “Dino”. We used “nein”. It worked as well as saying “no” to any other dog and got us a bunch of great looks at the park.

  • Lar

    September 25, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    The “danger words” made me think of one that a family friend taught my daughter: “ca-ca.” My friend lived on a farm, and when they went for walks they had to watch out for cow patties, so they’d point and say “ca-ca!”, meaning, “gross, don’t step in that!” My daughter ended up understanding and using the word for all sorts of nasty things that she shouldn’t touch.

  • Kate

    September 25, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    My mother actually took me to get my hearing checked when I was in preschool because of selective toddler hearing. She was a little embarassed that my hearing was fine but the doctor said that lots of first time parents wind up bring their kid in for a hearing check.
    I think teaching a kid “back away” is pretty good. I might go with “hands down” though, it just sounds better to me (for some reason “back away” feels like something you would say to a criminal).

  • Free Wilma

    September 25, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I had a babysitter YEARS ago who always used the phrase “Please don’t” instead of “No”. She liked it because it always began with the one word you WANT them to say. It makes the commuications much more pleasant.

  • Jamie

    September 25, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    We use “that’s a no” and then well “bah” which was orignally for the dog but it works. I like the “back away.” I am going to try that one.

  • Spookie

    September 25, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    This problem is probably further emphasized when you are from the Midwest (specifically Wisconsin) and your “no” sounds a lot like “nooooooaaa”, especially when you are frustrated and draw it out a bit.
    I’ve been made fun of for that for years now and never thought about what it would mean if I had a kid named Noah.
    Mental note, not naming kid Noah.

  • Cobblestone

    September 25, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    My toddler is still really young and I’m optimistic (or um – stupid). I’m trying to tell him what to do instead because, “don’t eat that rock” is more about EATING THE ROCK than about the “don’t” so I’m trying “rock on the ground” or “hands only”.
    Please, let me pretend this will work! 🙂