What To Tell Your Toddler Instead Of ‘No’

If you parent a toddler, you probably say the word “no” a lot. It comes with the territory of caring for a being that is constantly doing things that are unsafe while also making frequent and repeated unreasonable requests. I am not advocating that we never tell our children “no.” Toddler-parenting very often calls for some big ol’ NOPE. But there is another tactic we can try when they’re asking for something we know is a no to avoid the typical meltdown that follows.

Colin Dodds explains in the Washington Post:

A toddler is only intermittently a rational person. And while the occasional lesson will sink in before things get out of hand, once the kicking and screaming begins, you’ve lost them.

So here’s what I learned: Don’t say no, at least not at first. Through error and trial, I’ve found two ways to do this without giving in: with an interesting story, or with a tangible alternative.

It’s like when you distract them with a sing-songy toy so they’ll be less interested in grabbing the cat’s tail. But with words.

The interesting story

With an “interesting story,” you’re distracting the child from the thing they want by piquing their interest with a narrative. Here’s what it might sound like:

“I want to watch a show! Can I watch a show??”

“You know, I saw a show the other day that I wanted to tell you about. It had a character that was a wizard. Do you know anything about wizards?”

“They’re magical?”

“That’s right! A wizard is a boy with magical powers. And witches are girls with magical powers. One day, we should read Harry Potter together. That’s a story about a little boy…”

Your story can be real or fictional, but Dodds suggests you can improve your chances of success “by keeping the narrative close to things the child likes, or things that are within their visual field.”

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The tangible alternative

The “tangible alternative” tactic is probably going to work more often because at least they’re getting something. And if you’re really good at this, your alternative will sound better than the thing they initially wanted. Like so:

“Can we go to the playground?”

“Oh, you want to play? Hey, that reminds me! I was thinking we could make our own indoor hopscotch game today.”


“Yes, with bubble wrap, so it pops when you jump on it; here let me show you what it looks like…”

You haven’t said “no,” but you’ve offered up an alternative that was unexpected and arguably more fun than going to the playground.

You’ll have to be pretty quick on your feet to pull these off and sometimes the kid is just going to want the show or the playground and nothing else will do. But one less tantrum once in a while should always be considered a win.

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