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The Terribly Misunderstood Twos


"Sweetheart, it's time to put on your shoes."

"No."

"Do you want me to help you."

"No."

"Do you want to do it yourself?"

"No. No. NO. NO."

Sheesh.

Remember when that cherubic little face first said, "Mama!" or first lovingly reached for you, calling, "Dadadadada!" Each word seemed like a new treasure as your sweet baby learned to communicate with you. You made lists in her baby book of each new word. You beamed with pride as those lists grew longer, her dear little voice with its dear little mispronunciations, cheerfully mistaking "dog" for "woof," her enchanting little "Wub you, Mama."

So how come her favorite word ended up being, "No?"

Simply, because it works. "No," has meaning and strength. It gets a reaction and it engages other people. For the toddler who is just beginning to experiment with what it feels like to have influence, saying, "No!" is an efficient way to wield it. This new agency is a fascinating cognitive milestone. The child, who was previously reliant on others for everything from what she wore to what she ate, now has the words and the intellect to assert her own voice. No surprise then that she asserts it loudly and often. Wouldn't you? (Truth be told, you probably did, too. Good for you!)

What's a parent to do?

First, stay calm. Your child resisting your authority is actually a great step in his or her development. It means your child has sufficient cognitive capacity to know that he is a separate person than you, and that he is a person with some capacity to influence his world. Remind yourself that your child is not saying, "No," to annoy you, but to influence you. That's a developmentally appropriate expression of his expanding understanding of the world. Pat yourself on the back... your child is developing just exactly as he should.

But then, try these steps to still get some stuff done!

- Offer limited choice: Remember the old adage- a child's freedom should be as wide as the span of her arms. When she's little, that's just a little freedom, like controlled choice between just two outcomes. "Would you like peaches or pears with your yogurt?" "Would you like to bathe and then brush your teeth, or brush your teeth and then bathe?" "Would you like to climb out of the car on your own or would you like to use my arm for support?" In identifying limited choices for your child, you offer her agency to influence the outcome within reason. You still determine the choices, but she gets to pick between them. You can use limited choice even when you're redirecting children's behavior, "Would you like to climb down off the table by yourself or would you like me to lift you down?" Your child may still initially refuse. Simply repeat the choice again, calmly and quietly without great explanation. " I hear you. Would you like to climb down off the table by yourself or would you like me to lift you down?"

- Parent, heal thyself: Listen carefully to your own words with your child and make sure you're not using, "No," more than you absolutely have to. If you're redirecting your child from something dangerous, say, "Danger!" or "Careful!" If you're refusing your child's preference for something, say, " I know you'd like _______, but today we're going to..." Most of the times when we say, "No," in directing our children, we could choose more positive language and avoid the word entirely. Overusing, "No" as adults takes away its power when we use it, and models it as an appropriate first response for our children.