Saying No To "No!"

I use the word so often it's lost all meaning to my kids. Can I set limits without being so negative? I'm about to find out.
mother and child talking

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8:37 a.m.: "No, you can't eat the doggie's food, sweetie."
8:45 a.m.: "Don't touch the stereo, please."
8:51 a.m.: "Stop banging your truck on the coffee table."
8:58 a.m.: "No, no, no! How many times do I have to tell you? Do. Not. Do. That."

As your impulsive toddler becomes more mobile, you might find yourself using the terms "No!" "Don't!" and "Stop!" over and over. But being a naysayer gets old quickly, for both of you. "You hate to be negative all the time, and after a while, your child will stop paying attention to you," says Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., a child psychologist in New York City.

While saying no is a normal and necessary aspect of being a parent, it's a whole lot easier to manage the relentless, limit-pushing stage of toddlerhood if you can tweak your disciplinary approach. Rather than butting heads over his desire for independence (and your need to keep him safe), be proactive and put an upbeat spin on the situation.

Practice Prevention

Aside from simply doing the usual childproofing of cabinets and outlets, it's a good idea to give your home a thorough second look, with an eye toward protecting anything you wouldn't want your toddler to handle. While it's true he needs to learn that certain areas of the house are simply off-limits -- you can't put the stove out of reach, after all -- there's no point in using up a 1-year-old's limited willpower by leaving a room full of tempting items. "Toddlers are incredibly curious. It's how they learn, so you don't want to block that at every turn," says Rahil D. Briggs, Psy.D., an infant and toddler psychologist at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York City. For now, swap the collectibles and keepsakes in favor of unbreakable objects he's free to touch and explore, and invest in a home-theater cabinet with locking doors.

Have a Can-Do Attitude

As you set limits, let your child know what she is permitted to do, suggests Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a child psychologist in Wailuku, Hawaii. Saying, "No digging in the flowerpot" will leave her feeling stymied and frustrated. So try suggesting an alternative activity, such as "Let's go outside to dig." Beyond this, almost anything you might tell your child not to do can easily be rephrased in a more encouraging way. Don't want her to stand on the kitchen chairs? You can say, "Chairs are only for sitting, sweetheart." You'll send the same message but get far better results. If you sense a conflict developing, act as if you're on the same team as your child. Instead of laying down the law ("Stop throwing the ball in the house"), enlist her help ("Hey, can you help me roll the ball on the porch?").

Show, Don't Tell

Demonstrate the kind of behavior you'd like to see from your child. If he's pulling the cat's tail, for instance, hold his hand as you stroke her and say, "This is how we pet Ginger; see how much she likes that?" suggests Dr. Wittenberg. Not only does this teach him the right way to do something, but it also rewards him with the thing he values above all else: your time. Keep in mind, though, that from a toddler's point of view, any attention is good attention. If you get mad when he's having fun chucking blocks across the room, he may be less willing to give up the game. Instead, try saying calmly, "Blocks are made for stacking, not throwing, honey."

Use the Art of Distraction

When your 18-month-old has her hands on her big brother's favorite stuffed animal and he wants it back, avoid wrestling it away from her. Toddlers have a short attention span and can easily be moved on to the next thing. So focus on redirecting her ("Here are your bubbles -- let's go blow them together"). If that doesn't work, give your child the independence she craves by putting her in charge of choosing an acceptable activity to replace a forbidden one. If she's throwing wood chips at the playground, for example, you might say, "Do you want to go on the swings or climb on the bouncy bridge? You can pick."

Think Before You Speak

When your child does something naughty, it's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and say "No" or "Stop." However, too many parents of toddlers end up retracting their commands later, Dr. Balter notes. You might realize after the fact, for instance, that it doesn't matter if your child unloads the entire cabinet of pots and pans; it is a harmless way to keep him entertained while you get something else done in the kitchen. But if you decide to let him continue an activity after you've told him not to, you've effectively undermined your authority. Fortunately, there's a simple solution: Before you forbid your child from doing something, pause to be sure it's important enough to enforce.

Of course, this doesn't mean you should avoid negative terms entirely. The key is simply to use them wisely. "Save them for those times when there's no other option or strategy, such as when your child lets go of your hand while you're crossing the street," says Dr. Briggs. That way, he'll learn that there are certain times when there's no room for negotiation.

What Is Positive Discipline?
What Is Positive Discipline?

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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