Save that “no” for when you really need it
Without a doubt, there is no word primed and ready to set off the fuse of your toddler faster than the word “no.” Who knew a two-letter word could be so eruptive? Don’t fret though, we’re here to diffuse the situation (and hopefully avoid the temper tantrum that’s sure to come with it) by subbing in a few alternative phrases to the word “no.” The next time your kid asks for ice cream before dinner or wants to read three more stories before bedtime (because they are definitely not tired), go ahead and give one of these phrases a try. We can’t promise they will work every time, but here’s to hoping.
1. “Can you tell me more about why you want_______?”
Taking the time to understand where big feelings are coming from is always time well spent for parents. And digging deeper can sometimes redirect your kid’s attention so you don’t have to utter the dreaded word.
Take it out for a spin when your little one asks for something at the store that’s not on your list. “I hear that you really want those bright pinky, sparkly shoes. Can you tell me more about why you want them?” It can be fun and insightful to delve deeper into the why of your toddler’s demands. And while it may not stop a meltdown in the middle of a bustling store, it lets them know you care.
2. “Oh, I wish we could too, but…”
Just hearing “no” may be jarring to kids, especially for toddlers who are just learning how to cope with big feelings. Instead of laying it on, we say let someone else be the bad guy for a change. Who? Who cares! Just as long as you and your kid are on the same team. That’s the beauty of this turn of phrase—it helps you side with your kid while still setting a limit.
Test it out the next time your kid wants to eat dessert first. “Oh, I wish we could have ice cream before dinner too, but we’ve got to eat healthy foods first. Plus, Mommy is making a really yummy dinner, and I can’t wait for you to try it. Would you like to help me cook?”
The best part about these phrases is that they don’t have to be used in isolation. Take the above scenario for example. Side with them on the ice cream before dinner, and then give them an opportunity to choose an alternative. “Oh, I wish we could have ice cream before dinner too, but healthy foods come first. Instead of ice cream, do you want to have a cheese stick or strawberries? You can pick!” Mix and match looks good on you, parents.
3. “You can…”
Once your kid hits two we bet you’ve found yourself repeatedly saying things like, “don’t touch that,” “don’t hit,” and “don’t jump on that” to no avail. It’s exhausting! Bottom line—your kid isn’t defiant, they have probably just become desensitized by the concept of don’t.
So instead of the instinctive “no, don’t” approach, try replacing your “don’t” with a “you can.” Instead of saying, “don’t climb on the table.” Try out, “I see you want to climb. Tables are for eating, but you can climb at the playground. Do you want to go to the park and play?” Think of this one as the bees-to-honey approach to saying “no” to your kids.
4. “How about _______ instead?”
Never underestimate the power of compromise, especially if you’re a parent. Meeting your kid in the middle can be an easy way to set a limit without too much pushback, and the best part is it works in lots of different situations.
Are the kids trying to push bedtime back when all you want to do is curl up on the couch and catch up on your latest binge-worthy show? The next time they ask if they can stay up late, try to compromise. “I know you want to stay up. We’re having so much fun. How about I set a timer for five more minutes so we can finish playing and you can get a good night’s sleep?” In the grand scheme of things, five minutes is nothing and your little night owl will feel like it’s a big win.
5. “You choose.”
One of our favorite books these days is What Should Danny Do? The storybook follows superhero Danny as he navigates his day. What do we love about it? It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book where you decide what Danny should do, and his superpower is the power to choose. Instead of shutting down a situation with an unflappable “no,” try instilling Danny’s lessons into your everyday by giving your toddler the power to choose.
Did your opinionated toddler wake up and decide last night’s pjs are the outfit of the day? Instead of the requisite, “No, you can’t wear that” lean into the power to choose with something like, “I love those pajamas, but you wore them all night. How about we choose a different outfit together? You have the power to choose! Here are a few options. Which one do you like the best?”
This handy phrase can work for spats over playdates as well. “We can’t go to the zoo today, but we can do something else that’s super fun together. You have the power to choose. Would you like to go to the park or walk aimlessly through Target with me?” Voila! It’s a win-win.
6. “We’ll see.”
Sometimes it’s best to leave it vague. That’s the power of this simple phrase. It works especially well for those in-the-moment questions that don’t actually happen in the moment. Questions like: “Can I have a playdate with so-and-so next week?” or “Can I go to the zoo on my birthday?” are easily put off until a later date with a simple “We’ll see.” You can even zhuzh it up a bit with excited exclamations like, “Oh, going to the zoo on your birthday does sound like fun. We’ll see.”
7. “Maybe another time.”
For those moments when you have to say “no” but you could have just as easily said “yes” if the circumstances were different, lean in with this phrase. If the kids want to head over to a friend’s house to play after the park but it isn’t gonna happen, let them know “Maybe another time you can.” The next time they want to get a really cool toy, or invite a friend over to play, or head to the park when you’ve got a work call or errands to run, reassure them that there will be another day, so maybe they can…another time.
8. “I’ll think about it.”
There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to think. And when you pull this one out with kids, you’re showing them the truth in that. They don’t have to know it’s just another way to say “no” in the moment without causing an uproar. Why? Because you’ve left the door of possibility open.
The next time you’re grocery shopping and your kids succumb to the store’s must-have product placement, tell them you’ll think about it. “Can we please get these ice cream sandwiches?” becomes a much easier question to answer when you help your kids delay gratification by saying, “I’ll think about it.” And then keep on moving. Just remember, this one works best with big kids.