How And When Do Children Learn “No?” – Denial Gestures By Development
Christopher Philip

One of the more obvious gestures we learn in our lives is “no.” We understand that when someone shakes their head left and right, that they are negating.

While there is much research on the gesture itself, no one has examined at which age this gesture is understood by children.

Toward this end, a team of researchers led by Keith Austin, University of Manchester measured the reaction to gesture (head shake), verbal denial (“No”), as well as denial in a sentence (“It’s not in this bucket”).

It was found that children aged 1 year, 9 months did not search differently in response to any of the cues. Children aged 2 years, 0 months searched at above chance levels to only the negative words and negative sentences while the children aged 2 years, 4 months searched at levels above chance with all three cues in both positive and negative treatments.

“Young children thus seem to understand the denial of a statement before they understand its affirmation, and they understand linguistic means of expressing denial before they understand gestural means,” say the researchers.

In other words, understanding of denial happens early in the second year beginning first with linguistic forms and later evolving into gesture forms.

The study is important because it helps indicate how the mind is wired.

It is also quite surprising that children did not search differently based on gesture as I would have expected. I taught and communicated with my son very early in his life so I would have thought that children would and could understand gestural negation before verbal negation.

I asked Elena Lieven, one of the study’s co-authors how it was that, given, that I was able to teach my son to read and use sign language at a very early age, that children in this study were not as successful in understanding negation.

She replied with the following:

“First the ‘no’ and head shake were used for denial and this is different to the prohibition use that children mostly learn first. Second, think about the set up. The children had to understand that the person ‘with the knowledge’ was answering the child’s partner’s question about whether the object was in a particular box i.e. although we did our best to make the child and their partner a team, the situation had elements of a third party interchange rather than a 1st-2nd person interchange. Finally, I think that almost all the time, children hear ‘no’ and a head shake together and, as we have shown for prototypical constructions such as the transitive, it takes them developmental time to understand the cues when used separately.”

So, while the experiment had some elements from life situations that children would have experience, the actual task they were in during the study, were more challenging. While a child learns that ‘no’ means ‘not to do something’, this particular task meant that the object of interest was ‘not there.’ Using words and gestures, was most effective in conveying the information though, likely because it helped reinforce developing concepts.

The take-away message is quite clear in that it takes some time for children to really grasp communication. There might be times when we think we’re being clear, and that our child understands right from wrong, but there are times when kids simply do not understand the instructions due to their development. Certainly something to keep in mind when trying to be clear about important rules you wish your toddler to follow.


Keith Austin, Anna Theakston, and Elena Lieven and Michael Tomasello. Young Children’s Understanding of Denial. Developmental Psychology. 2014. 50(8): 2061–2070.