10 Ways to Say ‘No’ Without Saying No

Telling your toddler 'no' is one of the easiest forms of discipline, but it isn't always the most effective. Here are 10 better ways to get your kid to listen.

There are better ways to deny, deter, or discipline your child than always saying "no." Aside from the obvious exhaustion—for both parent and child—some parenting experts believe that saying "no" too much can breed resentment or plant seeds for future rebellion.

A young girl takes photos with a cell phone

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Using "no" too often can also desensitize a child to its meaning, so save the word for life-threatening situations instead, according to Audrey Ricker, Psy.D., co-author of Backtalk: 4 Steps in Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids. Using short, clear, and concise phrases to explain why your toddler shouldn't do something works better.

Instead of saying "no" the next time you find yourself in one of these common scenarios with your toddler, try this instead.

Reaching for More Sweets

David Walsh, Ph.D., author of No: Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, suggests that parents deny certain junk food requests, like ice cream and candy, by offering a healthier alternative, such as yogurt. Avoid the promise of "maybe tomorrow," Dr. Walsh says. "Toddlers can't comprehend time very well, so it doesn't make sense to tell them exactly when in the future they will get ice cream. Most toddlers just want what they want, so the parents need to calmly, firmly, and warmly offer the healthy snack in spite of a toddler's protests." This way, your toddler still gets a treat, but it's better option.

It’s also important to pay attention to your messaging around food. Terms like healthy versus unhealthy, or good versus bad can lead to unhelpful emotions about food, explains Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., Parents’ Ask Your Mom advice columnist. Instead, explain that certain foods give our body more energy and we need those foods to think better, run fast, and not get sick.

Flinging Their Food

Toddlers tend to play with food because they might still be full from a previous meal. The food then becomes a toy, says Linda Shook Sorkin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego. Instead of shouting as your toddler flings a bowl full of macaroni and cheese to the floor, simply take the bowl away and explain the reason why they shouldn't throw food.

On a similar note, you can also use this calm, explanatory approach when your little one starts bouncing on the bed in the late hours by saying, "Beds are for sleeping and relaxing, not for jumping." But if they take a sip of milk without protest, acknowledge the good behavior with a compliment.

Knocking Down Someone Else’s Toys

If your curious toddler decides to go Godzilla on their sibling's Lego tower, it's not always a sign of jealousy—at least not consciously, explains Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child. "He may simply see the Lego building and think that it would be fun to knock it down," says Dr. Walfish. But keep in mind, "Most kids hate to be told what to do, some more than others." Instead, ask if you can join in and model the proper way to play with others.

Being Rough With Plants or Pets

If you catch your toddler ripping apart prized peonies or pulling a family pet's tail, point out that plants and animals are alive too. "When you hurt the flower (or pet), you hurt its feelings and growth." This helps your child develop empathy and awareness of the feelings of other living beings. "Give the child responsibility to learn that plants should be treated with respect, as with nature in general," says Marva Soogrim, a world-renowned nanny who works with families of celebrities and the founder of Marvalous Babies.

Hitting Siblings or Other Kids

"No hitting" likely won't work. "A toddler's capacity to understand what it means to hit others is very limited. It's important to stop the aggressor immediately and then calmly state the behavior you want, by saying, 'We do not hit when we are angry,'" Shook Sorkin explains. In many instances, the toddler is expressing their frustrations or seeking attention. "Ask siblings to hug each other to cultivate affection. Help kids calm down when they are angry or ask what they want when they are unhappy," she says. Another variation is to help the child begin identifying the feelings they are experiencing in any given moment. Once that feeling is identified, take it a step further to solve the problem.

Whining When Asking For Something

As your tot learns new words, they may whine to protest or request something. Avoid saying, "Stop whining" or "We don't whine." Instead, encourage them to communicate with simple words. Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast, suggests saying, "I can't understand you when you use the whiny voice." This can convince your child to speak in a normal tone. "The most powerful and natural motivator will be the reward of having her words, feelings, or requests heard and responded to. This approach carries the implicit lesson that the child has a choice in not just her tone of voice but in much of her behavior."

Engaging in Destructive Behavior

Laughter can be a wonderful asset when disciplining because it shows that you can identify when a more lighthearted approach is best. "Distraction and humor are excellent strategies to use with toddlers who are feeling stubborn or irritable," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention. "Little kids love to laugh, so doing something silly can be a fun and caring way to redirect them towards greater cooperation. You don't have to be a great comedian to do this. You can say a funny warning, like 'Here come the tickle fingers!'" The next time your toddler is knocking the garbage can over or throwing a ball in the house, playfully chase them into another room where there are more appropriate forms of engagement.

Taking Your Phone

Your child may want to hold your iPhone every time it rings in the grocery store, but it's not a plaything. Give your child a small and engaging toy instead the next time they try to grab the phone. "It's easier for children to replace a behavior than to stop it," Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. If you don't have a toy with you, try handing them a safe and inedible item (like a plastic ball) that can't be destroyed or cause a mess and isn't dangerous. You can also use the opportunity to educate them on the different items in the store.

Removing Their Shoes When They Shouldn’t

Your toddler just began wearing shoes and they may make every attempt to take them off—even in places where taking shoes off could be dangerous. Instead of chiding them to "stop taking your shoes off," explain what you want them to do instead. For example, "Leave your shoes on. We take our shoes off only at home." This can even be applied to toddlers who like climbing on top of furniture say, "Chairs are for sitting down" or "Please stand on the floor."

Attempting Something Dangerous

Sometimes "no" isn't enough to communicate possible danger. Instead, use other strong adjectives or verbs with a tone of urgency to get your point across. "Parents forget that they have to work hard at the positive communication they have with kids for the negative to be effective," Dr. Ricker says. She suggests parents communicate danger by "raising their voice, shaking their finger, or even looking scared." This means that if your toddler is about to put his hand on the stove—even when it's not in use—express your fear with alarming phrases like "hot!" or "danger!" and move them to a safer place immediately.

Updated by Anna Halkidis
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