Just Say No.
It happens to every parent at some point: a well-meaning but nosy stranger weighs in on your parenting style, your child’s behavior, your family’s choices – whether you want them to or not. It’s happened to me more than once, but the first time still kind of sticks in my craw, though it took place more than a dozen years ago. I was “enjoying” some time at the grocery store with my then-toddler and his infant brother. My toddler was deep into his terrible twos, and was committed to being uncooperative, answering every thoughtful question and comment I lobbed his way with an emphatic, “No!”
“Sounds like ‘No’ is your favorite word today,” I said to no one in particular. But an unbidden reply came almost immediately from a fellow shopper. “Maybe he says ‘No’ so much because he hears it so much at home.”
Ouch. With one simple sentence, this neighborhood know-it-all turned my reasonably happy and productive family outing into an opportunity for shame-faced soul searching. Was I a closet authoritarian? Was my rigidity really the cause of my child’s obstinance?
Turns out that defiance is a normal phase in a toddler’s development. The technical term for it is “toddler refusal,” and its emergence coincides with your child’s burgeoning awareness of her own free will and her growing desire to be in charge of her own thoughts and feelings. This phase can appear out of nowhere – all of a sudden, your cooing snugglebug becomes a roaring bundle of counterwill – and can disappear just as fast. But while you’re in the thick of it, it’s important to have a couple of strategies you can try out when things get heated.
This or that? One of the easiest ways to help your toddler experiment with free will is to offer him limited choices. Should we go to the Children’s Museum today, or the Library? Do you want milk or juice with your snack? Do you want to share with your sister, or play by yourself? No more than two options, and no more than one or two times a day, but this can be enough to satisfy your child’s desire to be in charge.
These are not the droids you’re looking for. Sometimes the illusion of choice can be just as powerful as the real thing. Do you want to read a story together before you take a bath, or after you take a bath? (Notice that the bath will happen either way.) It’s time to get dressed. Do you want me to choose your clothes, or do you want to pick them out yourself? You can really move the ball down the field by having your child focus on how you’ll accomplish a task rather than whether or not you’ll accomplish it.
Commence the countdown. Transitions are especially difficult for young children, who tend to become deeply involved in periods of play and may have trouble shifting gears. By giving your child clear warnings that change is coming, you’ll avoid many defiant meltdowns. We’re going to Grandma’s in ten minutes. Five minutes until we leave for Grandma’s. In one minute, we’re going to put on our coats and go to Grandma’s. Okay, it’s time, let’s go!
Try a “No” alternative. Okay, so maybe that lady in the grocery store had a point. If you find yourself saying “No” rather a lot, try replacing that word with a clearer explanation of your position. It’s not safe to play up there, so please come down. The puppy is delicate! Remember to use gentle hands. I can’t play with you right now, but I’ll join you as soon as I’ve put away these groceries.
Because I said so. There’s no school like the old school, and there are times when you simply can’t engage your child in a protracted battle of wills – like when his safety is at stake, or when you’ve got other people relying on you. It’s part of your job as a parent to let your child know when choices are appropriate and when they’re not. Say it with me: I’m the Mommy, and I make the rules.
And if your child persists in saying, “No, no, no,” don’t despair. One study from the University of Texas at Austin concluded that the children of mothers who displayed overwhelmingly positive parenting skills exhibited high levels of defiance when asked to perform simple tasks. By showing sensitivity to their child’s interests and being supportive participants in playtime, these moms were raising toddlers whose active resistance signalled healthy self-confidence and a willingness to deeply engage in the world around them.
Take that, neighborhood know-it-all!
Eleanor Barker lives in a cozy little bungalow along with her husband, two sons, two cats. When she’s not skiing, reading, or baking cookies, she’s Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Bozeman.