Suzana Herculano-Houzel


The intention is the best possible: to prevent them from being run over, destroying the house, taking what isn’t theirs, falling off the wall or killing the cat. You say “don’t put your hand there!” – but your child does anyway. Why is it so difficult to get a child to obey no?


Asterix answers. In the comic book “Asterix Gladiator”, the Gallic character, disgusted by the brutality of the gladiators’ training, proposes a new game to them: ask each other questions and answer them without using the words “yes”, “no”, “white” and “black”. The result, of course, is hilarious: huge, armed men sitting placidly in a circle struggling, like children, with the difficulty of preventing their brains from using such common words.


Your children’s brains face the same problem every time they hear “no” – with the aggravating factor that they are not yet as capable as adult brains of controlling their impulses. Big or small, every time it hears a word or phrase, order or not, the brain prepares itself to deal with it, activates the circuits that represent these ideas and sets up a motor program that links them together. If there’s a “no” in front of it, the prefrontal cortex understands that it needs to control the brain’s impulses and prevent the assembled program from being executed – or at least that’s what you expect from it.


So when a child hears the phrase “Don’t put your hand in the socket”, the brain’s representations of the ideas “by”, “hand” and “socket” are immediately activated and assembled into a motor program that stands by. But controlling impulses is not yet the strong suit of children’s prefrontal cortex, which lets many motor programs slip through and be executed inappropriately. To make matters worse, there are, of course, the rebellious children, whose prefrontal ignores “no’s”, and others who have heard so many unnecessary “no’s” in their lives that they have learned that most of them can be safely ignored.


In addition, the child’s immature prefrontal cortex still has to fight the urges of the reward system, which wants to experience everything now. Therefore, saying “Don’t jump!” to a child on a high wall is an invitation to their brain to first activate the idea of jumping and then, hopefully, repress the impulse. In other words, it’s a recipe for disaster.


How can you avoid it? Ah, the neuroscience tip for an effective alternative to “no” you’ll find here in two weeks’ time. Your prefrontal cortex can handle the wait, can’t it?



Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in March 2007.

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