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If you are a parent or caregiver of a toddler, you are sure to hear this word many times. "No," is a very powerful word for a toddler. For many children, the word "No" is an early expression of their growing sense of autonomy. Developing a sense of autonomy is an important developmental milestone that toddlers reach. A toddler becomes aware that she is a separate person from her caregivers and peers. As a separate individual, she realizes she can make choices and decide what she wants to do. "Wow! I am me and look at all the things I can do! No! Don’t want to stay in bed! No! Don’t want to take a bath!" thinks the toddler.

Most of us fall into the trap of saying "No!" right back to toddlers. It's a natural response when someone opposes you. Unfortunately, saying "No!" back can make power struggles more intense and actually keep a toddler from cooperating with you. One key way caregivers can help toddlers to cooperate is by finding ways to say, "Yes!" more often than "No!"

"Yes," helps the toddler figure out what they should do. Encourage toddlers to make safe and appropriate choices by redirecting their attention to the behaviors you wish to encourage. Here are some examples.

  • If he says, "No! Don’t want to take a bath," try responding by directing his attention to something in the bathtub he enjoys. "These toy boats are so dirty! Help me wash them so they can sail in the bathub ocean!"
  • If she pets the dog gently but then gets excited and pulls the dog's tail, it could be that she is just showing her excitement about the wagging tail. Hand her a stuffed animal to give her something to squeeze and then remind her, "Doggy has feelings. Pulling his tail hurts him. You can hug your stuffed puppy when you are excited."
  • If he is dropping food to the floor from the highchair or table, try saying, "It looks like you are finished eating." Then take the child from the table and help him wash his hands and move onto a new activity. Saying, "No dropping food!" may encourage him to continue dropping food on the floor so he will see your strong reaction.

Save your "No," responses for situations that will require the child to immediately stop. When the child's safety is at stake, a "No," is an appropriate response. If your child is running towards the street, you will likely shout, "No!" Follow up by reminding her we walk on the sidewalk and grass. If your child is trying to unbuckle his carseat while driving, say "No!" firmly. When you stop the car and are in a safe place, look him in the eye and say, "Buckle stays locked. The buckle keeps us safe." If she tries to bite you, say, "No!" and then remind her that biting hurts people and give her something safe she can bite, like a teether, washcloth, or try to figure out if she is hungry.

Another way to reduce the amount of times you need to say "no" is to set your space up for success. Toddlers are interested in everything and want to imitate what you are doing. The stove, electric outlets, and high bookshelves look SO interesting to a toddler, especially after they watch you plug things in, cook, and put things on high shelves. Use outlet plugs to discourage toddlers from exploring the electric outlets. Try knob covers or closing the door to the kitchen if your toddler is particularly interested in the stove. Anchor your bookshelves to the wall and keep their toys on lower shelves to encourage them to explore the low shelves.

More information about how to set up your home or child care space to support toddler's safe exploration is here. You can find other information about keeping your children's space safe on the Learning Child Team's pinterest board.

Good luck turning, "No! No! No!" into "Yes!"

Rebecca Swartz

Child Educator

Rebecca Swartz, Ph.D. strives to help parents and early educators through community education programs related to child development. She draws from her first hand experiences as an early childhood educator and being a mother of two young children. Rebecca wrote for ParentSavvy when she was working for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Extension as an Early Childhood Education Specialist and an assistant professor in Child, Youth, and Family Studies. Currently Rebe ...

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