The average toddler hears the word no an astonishing 400 times a day, according to experts. That's not only tiresome for you but it can also be harmful to your child: According to studies, kids who hear no too much have poorer language skills than children whose parents offer more positive feedback. "Plus, saying no can become ineffective when it's overused â€” a little like crying wolf," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that studies infants and toddlers. Some kids simply start to ignore the word; others slip into a red-faced rage the minute that dreaded syllable crosses your lips.So what's a mom to do â€” let her child run amok without any limits? Well, no! "Parents can break out of the yes-no tug-of-war by coming up with new ways to set limits," says Howard Gardner, an adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Changing Minds. Here, five positive ways to answer your child in the negative.
Say yes, sort ofYour kid asks you for candy while you're shopping. You say, "No candy before dinner." He stomps his feet. You say no again, more sharply this time. Before you know it, he's having a five-alarm tantrum in aisle four. Sound familiar? "Some kids can't understand or learn the reason for the rule if they only hear the word no," says Bruce Grellong, Ph.D., chief psychologist at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City. So next time, try reframing your no as a yes. For example, you could say to your child, "Yes, you can have candy after dinner. Let's go look for an apple for now."
Explain yourself and your feelingsConsider explaining to your child why her behavior â€” such as banging on the table over and over again â€” is so bothersome to you. You might tell her, "You're hurting the table when you bang on it, and that makes me sad. Please stop." Although it may feel futile to reason with a toddler, you're actually teaching her something: "You're showing your child that what she does affects other people around her â€” and you're giving her a crash course in empathy," says Leigh Thompson, a professor of dispute resolution at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and a mother of three. "It may take a while for your kid to develop concern for others' feelings, but reminding her of your perspective will help her along," she says.
Give him a choiceYour preschooler is throwing his ball in the living room, and you're bracing yourself for the sound of something crashing. Instead of saying, "No! No balls indoors," try saying, "You can roll the ball indoors or take it outside and throw it â€” your choice." Why? By offering him an option, you help your child feel like he has some power over the situation. "For kids between the ages of 1 and 3, this also encourages them to make simple choices and develop a sense of independence and competence," says Lerner. Just avoid overwhelming a young child with too many options: For toddlers and preschoolers, two is just right.
Show and tellTwo-year-old Henry keeps poking his baby sister; his dad keeps telling him, "No, stop." Why won't he? "Some children can't stop what they're doing, even when you tell them to, because they don't know what to do instead," says parent educator Elizabeth Crary, author of Without Spanking or Spoiling. You may have to help them figure it out. Henry, for example, needs his dad to say, "Give Sarah a kiss," or some similar suggestion; then he'll have an image in his mind of something to do instead of poking. Younger toddlers might need you to actually help them do what you're asking of them as you make your request: If your child's hitting the cat, say, "Gentle," while you guide her hand in a stroking motion. Do this enough times, and she'll begin to figure it out for herself. Same goes for kids' unconscious and often excruciatingly irritating kicking and banging â€” on the table, the back of your seat, whatever. "Often, kids are not doing these things on purpose," says Lerner. "Some children are very active and feel best when their body parts are moving â€” they're doing it unconsciously." Help your child connect with what her body is doing. You could try a humorous approach: "Tell that foot to stop!" Or simply help her figure out what else she could do with the offending body part: Perhaps your daughter is willing to make quiet little circles with her foot. Since long phrases are hard for the very young to process, you could simply tell a small toddler, "Quiet foot," and place your hand on her foot to show her.
Sound like you mean it"Kids initially learn the meaning of the word no largely from the tone of your voice when you say it," Lerner says. "So you can communicate what you need to say by using the same firm tone without the negative word." Reserve this strict tone for those times when your child needs to know not to mess with you. Likewise, you can also develop a "look" â€” or a penetrating glare â€” that immediately signifies to your child, "I don't like what you're doing, and you'd better stop."Avoid being a party pooper by helping your child find an activity that's just as much fun as the one you're putting off-limits. Instead of freaking out about the mess your toddler's making when she dumps a box of cereal on the floor, distract her with something else that's just as entertaining for her, like a favorite toy. "If you stay connected with your child and the fun she's having, she'll be more apt to cooperate with you," says psychologist Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. And turning her attention â€” and your own â€” to something pleasurable will help you relax about the cleanup job ahead, as well as the mischief and mishaps yet to come.
Reprinted with Permission of Hearst Communications, Inc. Originally Published: How to Say No (Without Saying No)