Why Toddlers Love "No"
There's not much that a toddler gets to decide for himself: You pick out his clothes, tell him when it's time to wash hands, and even dole out what he eats. This tiny word is his attempt to assert himself. "Saying 'no' is pretty powerful stuff," says Betsy Brown Braun, child development and behavior specialist and author of Just Tell Me What to Say. "Saying 'no' makes things happen—steam comes out of daddy's ears—or makes things not happen." This small word makes a child feel big, and understanding and testing his power is your toddler's primary job. "Sometimes they say 'no' when they mean 'yes' because it feels so good to say 'no,'" says Braun.
And think about it: Toddlers also hear "no" all the time from their parents. No fingers in the door hinge! No sitting on the cat! No tasting bath bubbles! It's no wonder they can so easily repeat a word they hear so often. Your toddler feels the potency and urgency of someone telling him "no," and he's eager to practice that power himself.
What to Do
"You can let your child say 'no,'" says Braun. She says that it's when your toddler says it that's important: If you're directing him to do something and he says 'no,' he's being defiant; If you ask his preference and he says 'no,' he's stating an opinion. "When it's his choice, let it be his choice. If it's not a choice, don't give him a choice. Don't give your child a directive that ends with a question mark," says Braun.
So, if you're asking your child if he wants juice and he says "no," you say, "Okay. Thanks for telling me." If you're telling your child that it's time for bed and he says "no," you say, "Too bad. It's time." But if you asked, "Are you ready for bed?" your toddler may have honestly answered your question. In other words, "Don't ask if you don't want to hear the answer," says Braun.
Keep in Mind
What about trying not to say "no" yourself? "Avoiding the word 'no' [altogether] does children a disservice because they don't learn what it means or the power of it," says Braun. However, overuse can weaken the potency of "no." Also be careful not to let "no" become "yes" if your child protests. Model for your child that "no" has one meaning. "I always recommend that parents say 'yes' before they say 'no'. Give them information," says Braun. For example, instead of saying, "Stop jumping on the couch," say, "I see that you want to jump. You can jump on the floor but not on the couch." "Sometimes when they hear you stopping them, it's almost a call to battle," says Braun.
And what if you can't stand hearing one more "no"? Take a breath and see it as a sign that your child is becoming his own person. "Do you want your child not to say no?" asks Braun, "Well ,only if you want them to grow up to be a blob. I worry about kids that are always compliant. We want kids to defy, to take risks, and try new things."