Little Kids

7 positive alternatives to "No"!

Toddlers don't respond well to a barrage of nos. But what's the alternative?

By Holly Bennett
Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

No. How often do you suppose most toddlers hear this in a day? A week?

Is it any wonder they turn around and give it right back to us?

Let’s face it, toddlers need limits. Curious, impulsive, blissfully unaware of most dangers, they rely on us to keep them (mostly) out of trouble. “Consistent boundaries give a child a sense of safety and security,” says Chaya Kulkarni, vice-president of Parent and Professional Education for Invest in Kids. “But you don’t want to be always saying no.”

Why not? If a toddler’s penchant for imitation isn’t enough to persuade you, consider the tantrum angle. Frustration is probably the top toddler tantrum trigger, and toddlers already have a lot of frustration in their lives. Now imagine hearing no at every turn, feeling thwarted again and again with no alternative path. Some toddlers explode in protest. Others become generally discouraged. “They’re going to start thinking they can’t touch or do anything,” says Kulkarni. “I don’t think we want to turn off a child’s curiosity.”

Finally, no is not such a good teaching word. For a toddler, it conveys disapproval rather than a specific instruction, something along the lines of there is something you are doing right now that I don’t like and want you to stop, but you will have to guess which thing it is. “Because they are still learning to think and understand instructions, the more concrete you can be with them, the greater the likelihood for them to stop,” says Kulkarni.

So here are some positive alternatives to no. But first, a caveat: No is not a dirty word—there’s no need to go to crazy lengths to avoid it. We’re just talking about cutting back from a deluge to a sprinkle. As Elizabeth Matos, mom to 20-month-old Calder, says, “Sometimes it can’t be helped!”


1. Minimize the need “Look at how you set up your home,” says Kulkarni. “Is it an environment that is child-friendly or an environment where you are constantly having to say no to everything your child touches?” A home where most forbidden temptations and dangers are out of reach (make sure to put away these top 10 choking hazards), and where interesting, safe opportunities to explore are available, will be less frustrating for both of you.

2. Redirect Taking a toddler away from a temptation to get involved with something else is sometimes all that’s needed, says Kulkarni—as in “Let’s go look at the fish in the big tank” (and give your older cousin a chance to finish his Lego creation in peace).

3. Use action words “Let go of Brian’s hair” or “Stop flushing the toilet” gives more concrete information than saying no, while still getting across the message that what she’s doing is not OK. “Don’t” plus the appropriate verb (“Don’t kick!”) is also more specific than no, but the grammar of a negative construction can be confusing to younger toddlers.

4. Give positive alternatives What would you like your child to do instead of the forbidden action? A positive instruction lets her know how to behave in a way that will gain your approval. Stephanie Hogan, a home daycare provider and former parent educator, uses this approach a lot: “We walk in the house.” “We sit on chairs.” “Use two hands to carry your plate.”

5. Give simple explanations Toddlers can’t follow complicated reasons, but simple explanations (“Hitting the TV might break it”; “That’s Mommy’s—not for kids”) help them understand. Bronson uses the word danger; for example, if Calder is playing too close to the fireplace, she’ll say, “Play over here, Calder. The fire is dangerous.”


6. Have a warning signal Hogan lets her charges know that they’re on the wrong track with an alert sound: “Ah, ah, ah!” Then she follows right up with the instructions: “Come away from the CD shelf.”

7. Ask for the rule When the kids are breaking a rule they’ve learned, Hogan often asks them: “Where do we throw balls?” or “Can you show me how we pat the dog?” She explains: “This helps reinforce that they know the rule, and I am not getting mad, but giving them a chance to correct themselves and do it right.”

Will these strategies always work? Absolutely not! As Hogan says, “The toddler stage is one that requires a lot of patience as they are testing their boundaries and exploring the world around them.” Still, if you can avert a few tantrums and have a happier, more co-operative toddler, isn’t that worth it?

Originally published in October 2010. 

This article was originally published on Jun 18, 2015

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