We Don't Tell Our Toddler No

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Before you roll your eyes at me and think I am ridiculous you need to hear me out.  We do not tell our toddler NOI! GASP! I know you are questioning all that I am saying and wondering how in the world we could possibly survive day in and day out with a  2.5 year old little human testing every boundary, trying to push every button, and doing all the things they are not supposed to without using that word.  The other words we try not to use are, “stop” and “don’t”!

It doesn’t mean that Adeline is in charge and runs the show.  It also doesn’t mean that we do not teach her what YES and NO mean and use those words in other contexts. YES and NO are pretty important concepts.  

Does this look like your house?

DON’T do that!
No, Don’t go upstairs!
Stop Throwing!
No, You can’t have this right now!

Have you ever thought about how many times a day you are using these phrases?  Does using these phrases ever result in a tantrum, or increasing behavior you are trying to stop in the first place?  Are we teaching our children the reasoning behind NO and helping them to make better choices in the future? Before I go any further, let me give you a little background about where I am coming from with this crazy idea!

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My background

Before I was employed by the empire of Adeline Belle, I was a Director at a school for kids with autism, and a special educator who primarily worked with special needs kids in early childhood.  I worked in the home, then taught special ed kindergarten for 5 years, followed by my role as a Director.  Primarily I worked with kids with autism many of whom had difficulties with behavior.  (This isn’t true for all kids with the diagnosis of autism.) A huge component of my job was decreasing behaviors enough so that kids were available to learn. We practiced under the philosophy of Applied Behavior Analysis or most commonly called ABA and I have carried bits of that philosophy into my home life and parenting style.

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

What is ABA?

ABA is a science, founded in research, that is used to increase behaviors you want, decrease behaviors you do not want, and teach new skills.  It is one of the most effective methods to teach kids with autism, but you can do ABA with anyone, anywhere, at any age.  I hope John does not read this, but I use it with him and he does not even know.  When his behavior is followed by some sort of reward, the behavior is more likely to be repeated. After he after he does a long day of work on our house I will cook him his favorite meal and take care of all the medical night stuff in hope that rewarding him for this behavior I will get some more work on house days!   A few of my GF used to joke that we should trade husbands so John could get a vacation and I could train their husbands.  #TrueStory We use this philosophy of behavior reinforcement and positive behavior management in our home and a former colleague of mine puts it perfectly;

we dont tell our toddler no - effective behavior strategies - shegotguts.com
It’s not the word “no” in and of itself that is detrimental to development. In fact, the concept of “yes and no” is abstract across its many applications in our language. It is an important concept for a child to grasp as they learn important skills such as self-advocacy, self expression, and social expectations.  So, when we are talking about discipline, rule-following and compliance, NO is not the real issue. The real issue is the missed learning opportunity that using NO and NO alone can cause.   
— Layne Wells M.Ed, BCBA, LBA. 

Why Isn’t NO effective?

To put it simply, in the context of discipline, rule-following, and compliance, using NO is a missed learning opportunity and does not teach them.  Which means that it probably won't prevent or decrease the undesirable behaviors you are trying to get rid of.  At this toddler age (2-3 years old), they are struggling with independence, self-asserting themselves, and trying to master many new tasks all while beginning to realize there are limitations.  This new understanding that there are rules and limitations can lead to temper tantrums, testing of boundaries, of behaviors that appear to be anger or willful defiance.  Believe it or not, tantrums are part of their development and your role can be to help them cope, learn new skills, understand EXPECTED behaviors so that compliance and rule following improves.  Discipline is about changing behavior, not about punishment. For some reason when we think of discipline we think of punishment and consequences instead of guiding, being provocative , and teaching new skills.  Effective discipline leads to self-discipline which then leads to socially and emotionally mature adults.  That’s the end goal, right?

we dont tell your toddler no - shegotguts.com
Believe it or not, tantrums are part of their development and your role can be to help them cope, learn new skills, understand EXPECTED behaviors so that compliance and rule following improves. 
Behavior Strategies that Work.png
why we dont tell our toddler no -shegotguts.com

Positively Reinforce the Desired Behavior. This may be the most important part of creating and maintaining new desired behaviors.  Reinforcement can be anything that your toddler responds positively to.  It could be hugs, high fives, verbal praise (“great job using gentle hands with the cat”) or even tangible; favorite toy, small piece of candy, iPad, etc

Instead of  only focusing on the negative behaviors at dinner, try, “You did such a great job keeping your food on your tray at dinner you can play with your Kindle.”


·Tell your child what you want, not what you don’t want. Often parents will tell their children what not to do, assuming that the expected behavior is obvious. But don't leave it up to chance. Tell the child what it is they CAN be doing in a given situation and they will be more likely to do the right thing next time. 

·Example: Instead of "no don't climb on the counter!"  Try "when you're hungry you can ask nicely for a snack. I can help you get something from the cabinet".


Give choices whenever possible. Choice increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn't important, it's the appearance of choice. Giving a choice helps your child feel in control while you are still achieving the desired result.

Instead of “Time to put on your pajamas” Try “Do you want to wear your Minnie or Paw Patrol pajamas?”


we dont tell our toddler NO - shegotguts.com

Keep Your Cool: Remaining calm and cool is only going to make the situation go smoother and show your toddler you are in control of your emotions.  Getting loud, mad, yelling is only going to make things worse and in the end you are probably left with a headache and either a screaming or crying toddler.  When frustrated, it is ok to walk away before reacting. 

 Instead of “NOOOO! Do not hit Mommy!!!” Try (after composing yourself) “Hands are not for hitting, if you are upset you can say, I am mad!”


Parents need to model the types of behavior they want their children to emulate. Remember, yelling begets yelling, hitting begets hitting. “ We should not do anything in front of [our children] that we don’t want them to do.
— Dr. Katharine C. Kersey, the author of "The 101s: A Guide to Positive Discipline

 Give Appropriate Alternatives: This is a fancy little trick but when a child makes a request for something instead of saying no, give them some other options.  Instead of telling them what they can’t do, tell them something they can do.

· Instead of “No you can’t go outside!” Try, “You can play with trains or you can paint with mommy”


why we dont tell our toddler NO - shegotguts.com

Redirect: Toddlers can be easily distracted, and this is a good tool after you have denied their request, made them comply with something, etc

Instead of, “No TV, its time for bed.” Try, “I’m going to get you! (give them hugs and tickles) Lets turn off the TV and go sing some songs before bed! What do you want to sing?”


 Be Consistent This is key to behavior management.  Have you ever noticed your toddler will push more with the more lenient parent?  Its because they are testing the limitations you have set so it’s important you are consistent. Children like limits and one study has shown that kids will push parental boundaries about one third of the time, so this will happen. A consistent approach is shown through a clear set of limits and boundaries that provide kids with structure and teaches them how to behave. Consistency between parents is also key.

·Make sure you are consistent with your partner.  When John and I are together and Addie asks for something I check in with him first to make sure he did not already give her an answer.


Ignore the Little Things  A toddler is a barely a kid, in some ways they are still a baby, so it’s important you cut them some slack. 

They are moving around in their seat, swinging their legs, instead of “Stop moving around.” Just ignore.  It’s not unsafe, so try to be patient.

 Forgive Yourself This isn’t easy to do, and is a total mind shift to how you have been disciplining.  If you commit to not using the word NO and instead try to guide your child by teaching them what you do want, you are going to make mistakes.  Just the other day Adeline pinched me since I was ignoring her and I yelled out “Noooo!”.  It happens, so forgive yourself.

In my experience, this strategy works for all kids, while what motivates and reinforces them is different for each. I will give you a personal example.  We live in a house with 3 floors and it was built in 1912 so the steps are steep and we live on a huge hill and at the bottom of the hill is a 10 foot high stone wall.  While Adeline has been exploring the yard and our home we’ve taught her about unsafe and safe behaviors.  Going too far down the hill is unsafe and going up the stairs alone is unsafe.  She understands why we have set this limit.  It took time for her to understand these concepts, and your toddler has to have a certain degree of cognitive ability. But now she walks to a certain point in the yard and says “too far”.  She is much more willing not to test because she understands the reasoning behind the rule.  Believe me, this is not an overnight or instant lesson.  But she did learn.

we dont tell our toddler no - shegotguts.com

A few more positive phrases that may help;

·         "Things need to grow. Let's be gentle."

·         "Food is for eating, not for flinging."

·         “Show me good sitting at the table!”

·         “I want quiet hands with the sink water.”

·         “That is not safe (provide an alternative and demonstration of appropriate behavior).

·         “Show me soft touch with the kitty.” (model this by using a gentle 2-finger touch on the cat’s fur, and having your child imitate it).