Three Little Words For Your Toddler That Are Better Than “No”
By Halina Newberry Grant
I don’t practice any “type” of parenting.
My daughter slept with us in our bed for a while: some people call that “co-sleeping,” I just called it getting sleep.
I wore my baby in a carrier. Some people call that “attachment parenting,” I just called it convenient and loving.
I embrace the philosophies behind what some call “child led” and “play based” learning, but I just call it “let my kid play and don’t interfere with her exploration unless someone is in danger.” I believe in helping her to understand that we take turns with toys, that it is kind to share what is ours, but we should not expect to always get what we want when we want it. We use “gentle hands” on animals and people. I’m sure all of this falls under some label of parenting methodology, but I don’t think it matters what I call it. I just want to raise a kind-spirited, compassionate human being who is ready for and able to contribute something positive to the world.
I believe in boundaries, and redirecting her physically by engaging her in something else when she’s fixated on something unsafe or unsavory (an open window, the dog food.) (And before you tell me “let her eat the dog food. She’ll learn it doesn’t taste good, and she’ll move on.” I have. It doesn’t. And she doesn’t.) I know that she needs to be redirected physically and engaged in something else because I get ZERO results when I just call her name, yell No! or otherwise try to verbally redirect her. It just doesn’t work.
Before she was crawling, I did some cognitive-development-through-sensory-stimulation training. I learned so much about her developing brain, how it works and why babies and toddlers do the things they do. Because I’m not a neurologist, I won’t go into those heady explanations. But here are some excellent evidence-based resources.
One tool I was given by the instructor is an alternative to No! I placed this little gem in my back pocket and pulled it out when she got older, and her curiosity became a potential liability. I had no idea how valuable it would come to be. It’s a phrase we use every day—when offered fresh ground pepper on our salad, a receipt at Starbucks or a spritz of olfactory poison (perfume) at the mall. It’s a polite way of refusing something being offered that doesn’t benefit us, and it works like magic on the toddler mind:
No, thank you!
Toddler wants to adjust the volume on the Bluetooth speaker: No, thank you! (Physically re-direct to something shiny.)
Toddler wants to dump over the diaper pail: No, thank you! (Physically re-direct to the book shelf.)
Toddler wants to use the hose on the dog: No, thank you! (Physically re-direct the hose to the plants or the spouse.)
You see what I did there? While I am still appreciating and affirming her exploration and curiosity, I’m negating the behavior—while courteously requesting another type of behavior. Blah, blah, blah…
What I’m really doing is giving more power to the word No!
Parents of toddlers know what I’m talking about. Most days No! is the only conversation you have with your child. It’s the only word you use more than maybe “poopy?” What does No! even mean to their little ears? No-thing.
By saying No, thank you! instead, I give weight and gravity to No! all by itself. I still use No! but I think of it as “the big guns”—what I say when it’s really important. I use it so infrequently, in fact, that it immediately grabs her attention when I do—she knows that this time I mean business and we’ve moved into dangerous territory.
Toddler wants to put plug in her mouth: No! (Explain the terrifying danger as best you can, also physically re-direct to something else that’s shiny.)
Toddler wants to run into the street: No! (Explain the dangers of cars. Physically re-direct to the dandelion on the lawn.)
Toddler wants to climb the ladder that is actually a chair: No! (Communicate that climbing is okay for outside, but too dangerous inside. Physically re-direct to maybe the empty laundry basket.)
Some may think this is a lenient, passive, permissive type of parenting. Hey, if saying No! every 3 seconds is working with your kid, go for it. I just want my kid to know the difference between a hard No! and a “not cool,” because most of what she does is actually really cool, some of it tests my ideas of cool, and some of it—because she is a child learning about the world and will naturally want to push every type of boundary—is definitely just plain not OK.
In a culture where No! so rarely actually means No! I think it’s important that she knows the difference from a young age.
And it goes both ways.
As parents, we have to pick our battles. If my daughter is screaming “No! No! No!” about putting on her sandals on a 100 degree day, and is insistent on her rain boots and socks, let’s call it a draw. She can wear her boots and I’ll bring her sandals that she can change into if/when she changes her mind. It may seem illogical to my rational, reasoning mind, but it’s important to her for her toddler-cognitive-stage-of-development reasons.
Of course she won’t always get her way by screaming No! But I owe it to her to at least respect her strong emotions, and to try to get to her level and express empathy and understanding. I’ll try to explain why this time it will have to be “yes!” I’ll find another situation that she can control. Every adult I know also struggles with the pain of being powerless over people and situations.
In her book Superbaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years, Dr. Jenn Mann (formerly Dr. Jenn Berman) offers some great advice for facing power struggles. “The more you attempt to control your children,” she writes, “the more likely you are to create power struggles. I am not advocating that you allow your children to make the rules…I am recommending [that you] use techniques and words that invite cooperation rather than resistance.” She goes on to list several tools to help navigate these challenges, including providing opportunities for your child to help, allowing for times when your child can make decisions and giving two clear choices whenever possible. These are other ways of saying No, thank you!
No! Should be a powerful word, with gravity and weight. It should be the Super Soaker at a water balloon fight. Or in grown-up terms, the drone attack at a bar brawl. It should shut the mother down. Since eating glass and eating grass are two very different things, they deserve two very different reactions.
I cannot, of course, avoid every melt-down, power struggle or tantrum. The toddler’s brain is complex and irrational. But I’m looking to live in a harmonious home with mutual respect between me and my daughter, and her feelings matter. And do I want her to feel shameful, punished and bad? No, thank you.
Photo Credit: Jenny Downing
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