Waiting in the checkout line at my favorite garden center, I was entertained by a cute, curly-haired toddler in a white sundress. She stood behind me rocking back and forth in front of her stroller, singing baby-talk lyrics. When she began to run her hand along the ceramic pots that lined the low shelf to her left, her mother spoke up gently from behind the stroller.
“No, Ruby, don’t touch.”
Ruby stopped, looked up at her mom, and then turned back to the exploratory task at hand.
Her mother shifted the small plant she was holding from one hand to the other, and reached down to move Ruby back from the tactile surface of the pots. “Don’t touch,” she said firmly.
Again, Ruby’s tiny hand stretched out toward the pots, and again her mother pulled her back. Ruby’s mom breathed a sigh of resignation. Then she looked at me with an apologetic expression that translated as “Sometimes my child really does listen to me.”
But I thought her daughter was listening to her. When my son was Ruby’s age I noticed he only heard the last one or two syllables of whatever I wanted him to know. For example, he called his babysitter Mrs. Seznik, “Nick.” And the computer was the “pewter.” So it followed that telling him not to run, was in fact encouraging him to run. And to say, “Don’t touch” was permission to put both hands on. And that’s another thing I learned: The word “don’t” has absolutely no meaning to a little kid.
“You know, it’s kinda funny,” I said to Ruby’s mom, “but something I learned from my son at that age, was that he really only heard the last word of whatever I wanted him to do.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah, ‘Don’t touch’ meant ‘touch’ and ‘Don’t push’ meant ‘push.’
“Hmm. So what would I say instead?”
“Try ‘Hands off.’”
Ruby had been listening to our conversation, so her eyes were on me now. I smiled down at her and whispered, “Hands off.”
She put her hand up and just held it next to one of the pots.
“Ruby, hands off,” her mom repeated.
And Ruby’s hands stayed off.
Her mom thanked me, and I felt good about helping her. It’s given me the idea to talk to the child care workers at the day care center down the block about saying something other than “No screaming!”