Saying “No!” to Toddlers
May 3, 2013 8 Comments
Today I received email responding to my recent article on child discipline and asking me to take a look at this article: 10 Alternatives to Saying No to Your Child. That’s some good advice! I’m glad to see it on a site that helps people find jobs as au pairs (childcare providers who live with the family, usually in another country) because I know that many people in that line of work have limited experience working with young children, so they need good, detailed strategies. I agree with all the basic ideas in the article, but I also have a few tips on the subject to share.
The idea of “alternatives to saying No” is not that it’s bad to tell a child what she shouldn’t do. There are many times when it’s necessary to stop a certain behavior. The idea is to do it in a positive way when you can, instead of just hollering, “No!!” all the time.
Imagine living in a place where you don’t know the language or customs. Dozens of times a day, people say a certain short word to you. You hear this word in lots of different situations. How long would it take you to understand what the word means?
That’s how it is for babies and toddlers. It takes them a long time to understand that “No” sometimes means, “Stop pulling my hair!” and sometimes means, “Stay out of the kitchen!” and sometimes means, “Don’t sit on the cat!” and so on and so forth. Using more specific words helps them to understand which word means what. You can see this in a toddler’s response to a negative command that uses words he recognizes: You say, “No, you can’t have a cookie,” and he grabs a cookie–not because he is willfully defiant but because “cookie” is the only word in that sentence that has a clear meaning to him, so he’s thinking you just acknowledged his desire for a cookie. Tell the kid what you want, not what you don’t want.
The article advises warning, “That’s dangerous.” This is a good general principle, but a more specific one-word explanation of the danger can be even more helpful–not just in convincing the child to leave the thing alone but also in helping her understand what risk she is avoiding. Our son Nicholas was showing us that he understood “hot” when he was less than a year old. A little later, the word “unstable” was very useful!
Another good idea is offering something pleasant instead of the thing the child can’t have. However, starting that offer with, “Why don’t we…” can be problematic with a toddler. We adults understand that when one of us says, “Why don’t we go upstairs?” it means, “I want to go upstairs,” or even, “We need to go upstairs right now!” But to children just learning the language, a sentence that begins with “Why” or “Could you” sounds like a question. Use a declarative statement or command whenever possible: “Let’s go upstairs now.” “Go upstairs, please.” “Time for bed!”
The idea expressed in the article as, “Yes, later.” has worked well for me using the phrasing, “When…then…” Examples: “When you are in pajamas with teeth brushed, then we will read a story.” “When I am finished eating, then we can go to the park.” This helps the child understand why his request can’t be fulfilled immediately, which may help him to be more patient or to feel motivated to do what you want him to do first. It doesn’t work until at least 18 months old, though–younger babies don’t understand about time very well, so with them it’s better to redirect their attention until they can have the desired thing and then say, “Now we are ready for a story!” I remember several years ago reading about a mother who was expecting her second child and was teaching her almost-two-year-old daughter to understand the meaning of, “In a moment,” by saying that in response to a request and then making sure to remember to do what her daughter asked a short time later.
Regarding the use of distraction, I found that when little Nicholas was persistently doing something I didn’t like, it was very effective to pick him up and swing him upside down for a few seconds, with excited sound effects and a big smile. He found this hilarious, and even if it didn’t get him to forget what he’d been doing, it did put him in a better mood!
Overall, I felt that we must have been pretty good at avoiding saying No excessively, simply because Nicholas began saying the word “yeah” more than a month before he ever said “no”! 🙂
So, that’s what worked for me! Now check out 10 Alternatives to Saying No to Your Child! You might also like my articles Toddler Discipline in Three Easy Steps and Impulse Control and Understanding Consequences.