Saying “No!” to Toddlers

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.

8 thoughts on “Saying “No!” to Toddlers

  1. Pingback: Toddler Discipline in Three Easy Steps! | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Hi, ‘Becca. I understand the argument that using the same word over and over inhibits language learning, but I’m having some trouble believing that it takes toddlers a long time to understand that that one word means “stop whatever you’re doing.” As you know, my own experience with toddlers is very limited, but I have trained both cats and dogs, and they very quickly grok the word No (when used with the proper tone of voice), so I can’t imagine that’s the problem with toddlers. Maybe they willfully decide to ignore it, but I can’t believe they are slower to learn the meaning of the word than cats and dogs are. Is that what you meant to say?

    • In my experience with a rabbit vs. a baby, it did seem that the rabbit was quicker to learn that “no” means “stop whatever you’re doing” than Nicholas was. This may be because a rabbit (or cat or dog) is not primed to learn language. In fact, I found that my rabbit responded that same way to just about any word said in a firm, loud, disapproving voice. I know that dogs do learn to respond differently to different commands in the same tone, so maybe this is a particularly strong effect for rabbits, who do not speak.

      Anyway, my impression is that human babies, who are born with strong social and linguistic instincts, do not easily and quickly develop the reflexive response to “no” (180-degree turn and complete stillness for a moment) that I saw in my rabbit, and many children raised in a relatively gentle way will never show this response to the WORD but only to a tone of voice that means, “You are in serious danger!” Children who stop everything and cower when they hear the word “no” usually have been trained into that response by harsh and negative parenting (although some extremely sensitive personalities may do it, too)–but that didn’t happen quickly, it took training.

      At any rate, no, I did NOT mean to say that a toddler who continues a behavior after hearing “no” is willfully ignoring having heard it. I think that humans are primed to expect different things from other humans than domesticated animals expect from humans. Unfortunately, many people these days become parents having never had much experience being around babies but having trained animals. I think it is important as a parent to remember that you are raising a person, not a pet, so instant obedience to brief commands is not really what you want–convenient though it might be!

      • Let me add that I have seen many toddlers who have begun talking do things like a story Mom tells about me: I liked to peel the binding off the encyclopedia, but they kept telling me No. So I would go over to the bookcase and run my fingers over the spines of the encyclopedia and say, “No!” You might say, “Oh, she knows she isn’t supposed to do that; she is being defiant and taunting her parents; she oughta be spanked!” But I think the correct interpretation is that I was testing a theory: “This word No is associated with my touching the encyclopedia.” Many such tests are involved in a child’s learning of words and their meanings, whereas an animal that responds to barks learns differently.

      • Oh–and you might also want to consider that a pet at the stage when one typically begins training with commands (around 8 weeks, old enough to be separated from its mother) is developmentally equivalent to a child at least three years old.

  3. Pingback: 28 Book Reviews! | The Earthling's Handbook

  4. Pingback: Deliberately disobeying - Mothering Forums

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