Parenting Your Toddler Through the “No” Years

Example A: A while back, I was sitting on the floor at a local children’s music class with my then two year old toddler, having a bit of a hard time persuading him to stay put and sing along with his maracas. He was distracted by three other toddlers who were running around outside the circle, walking in and out of the closet, climbing on the tables and chairs at the back of the room, and pulling out the instruments that were still packed away. The class instructor was doing her best to ignore the ruckus but was not pleased. Where were the mothers of these children? Sitting obediently in the circle shaking their maracas, half-heartedly calling to their children while rolling their eyes at each other, as if to say “What can we do? Toddlers will be toddlers”. The kids barely glanced their way. My son, who also loves to run and play, and a few other children in the circle, were having a hard time understanding why it was okay for those kids, but not for them. Eventually, someone fell out of the closet, cried, got an “I told you so”, was asked weakly to join the circle, and was then free to run around again. Now, from the kids’ perspectives, I understand, they’re two, they want to run, it’s hard to keep them seated; but not impossible. So what then? The situation still needs to be handled.

Example B: A friend and her toddler son were having a playdate and lunch at another friend’s house who has a daughter close in age. Lunch time at the table was anything but peaceful. At her mother’s pleas to eat, food was being hurled across the room, sliding down the opposite wall. Cutlery was thrown, feet were banging. The hostess mother gave the little offender a warning of a time out several times, with no follow through. Diaper time was no different. Unwilling to lie down, the mother chased her naked daughter through the house pleading and offering bribes of cookies, if only she’d let her finish the diapering. At the throwing of toys, there was some hand slapping by the mother and another vague warning of time out was given, again with no follow through.

Example C: An acquaintance and her husband have been sharing the bed with their toddler since infancy. Not because they’re proponents of the family bed, but because when they try to put their daughter in her own bed she screams and cries. To coax their daughter to sleep in her crib, they’ve taken turns sleeping on the floor in her room, which has proven to be quite uncomfortable. They’d like to have a full night’s sleep alone, but have not yet reached the point of being willing to lose the few nights of sleep it may take to get their daughter used to sleeping in her own bed; a feat better attempted while their child is still in a crib.

What’s going on here? Are these unfortunate parents caring for wild fillies who just can’t be broken? Is it just the luck of the draw that some kids will listen and others won’t. It may seem that that’s what the parents of these children might think, as evidenced in the raising of their eyebrows at each other in response to their children’s behavior. More likely, these toddlers are just doing their job: actively exploring, learning, and always, always testing. What’s even more likely is that their parents, like many others, may not yet be comfortable with their newfound position of authority.

Now by authority, I don’t mean authoritarian, which tends to be a style of discipline more widely known for its rigidity and inflexibility; and I also don’t advocate physical discipline. In most toddler-related situations someone has to be the one to give guidance, to explain which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, and a two year old will take the reins if the parent doesn’t; a scary prospect for parent and child alike. Your child needs to know, wants to know, is begging to know who is in charge and the answer should be you. Children really do tend to be happier when they know what the parameters are. They need, and should be expected, to be able to test those boundaries with the peaceful sense that mom and dad are up to the job of enforcing them.

In my counseling practice, I would often see parents coming in at the point of exasperation at their child’s behavior. The implication was to please “fix the kid”, but the work always started with a look at how the parents were dealing with discipline issues and, more importantly, how they felt about it. First and foremost, you have to be okay with actually being the authority; to get comfortable with setting and enforcing limits.

This begins not when your child is a toddler, but in infancy. We childproof our homes as best we can, but there will still come the day when you will have to tell your sweet baby “NO” when she tries to do something that might harm her, like pull an electrical cord. You’ll want to be comfortable with that “NO”. If it’s said as a question, or with a pleading tone, it will set the beginnings of a precedent for “NOs” to follow. A baby, and then a toddler, needs to know what actions and behaviors are acceptable, what the consequences are; and it’s up to his or her parents to set the example. When they’re infants, the “NOs” tend to be easier, because they are often directly related to your baby’s safety. Harness your certainty with those “NOs” and practice. When they get older and start to test you daily, the “NOs” will not only become more difficult, but they’ll be defined and questioned on a regular basis. Practicing may help you feel up to the challenge.

Some of these boundaries/limits/rules are “non-negotiables” and each family needs to decide what those are in their household. A non-negotiable typically is something that just is, like holding mommy or daddy’s hand while crossing the street. The belief that a situation is a non-negotiable, can make it easier to enforce.

In our house, the wearing of a hat outside in cold weather was a non-negotiable. When winter time rolled around, my son who was then 15 months old, would try to pull his hat off whenever it was placed on his head as we’d exit the house or car, and would cry if it was put back on. It came down to a stand-off one afternoon when we were in a mall parking lot. I realized we were in a non-negotiable moment, as he kept pulling his hat off. A decision had to be made: we could keep playing this game throughout the winter, both of us frustrated; I could let him go out without a hat (not an option in 15 degree weather); or we could stay inside until spring (also not an option). He needed to learn and accept what the rule was.

I gently held the hat on his head as he tried to pull it off. I told him calmly (even though I wasn’t feeling too serene) that he needed to wear his hat in the cold and could take it off when we were inside, and then waited, still holding the hat on his head. He also held onto the hat, cried and was angry, but eventually realized I meant business and accepted the hat. Later, as we exited the mall, there was again a struggle, but shorter in duration. As the days went by the struggle shortened even further and eventually stopped. By my reacting in a consistent manner, he was realizing this was a non-negotiable.

It took work, energy, and emotional stamina, but was eventually worth it. He learned several things from this experience: wearing a hat in the cold is a “non-negotiable”; that his attempts to remove it would be met with a consistent reaction from me; and that my word means something. This paved the way in his comprehension of how these things are dealt with, so that when other non-negotiable situations arise, as they inevitably do, we now had a foundation to build on. This can be exhausting work on the parent’s part. Had I given in, I could have easily been in the shoes of one of my maraca-shaking friends, rolling my eyes and saying “What can I do? He just won’t wear a hat”. I can empathize, but I truly believe that fighting the “non-negotiable” battle, although difficult, is well worth it in the long run for all the lessons it teaches. The alternative teaches your toddler that he’s in control. Again, a scary prospect for both of you.

This is not about winning. It’s about teaching and shaping a blossoming human being; taming the little “id” that’s inside all of us. It’s the most wonderful, difficult job in the world. And one of the job’s main components is being willing to consistently stand firm and set those boundaries about which behaviors will be tolerated, both in your family and in society, and which will not. It’s about accepting that you are the one who knows better. Accepting that you are the authority; and having confidence in your ability to parent. Your toddler is still forming and constantly needs guidance. Consider yours a work in progress, changing daily, with the next challenge, always, just around the corner.

Being okay with saying no and setting limits takes practice. It requires accepting that sometimes, maybe even daily, you will have to feel okay with being the bad guy and not being liked. It also means accepting the likelihood of tantrums that goes with the territory. This possibility can be so intimidating, that some parents will intentionally look the other way, like the maraca moms in music class. Ideally, a tantrum, though admittedly sometimes embarrassing when done in public, should be looked at as a wonderful opportunity to teach and learn. Standing firm on the idea that something is a “non-negotiable” may help. If a parent is able to hold his or her ground and not give in to the tantrum, the child learns that no means no and the tantrums really do tend to shorten in duration.

Do they go away completely? Let’s face it, they’re toddlers, there’s lots to be frustrated about—someone’s always having a say in what they can or cannot do, but a little latitude goes a long way. Whenever you can provide your child with choices (usually limited to two) do so. Toddlers are flirting with the intoxicating world of independence and need to feel like they have some control over their lives. As parents we have to learn to pick our battles, but that doesn’t mean ignoring what’s important, or letting the child decide.

Lets revisit the music class example. First, parents should explain and model for their toddler what acceptable behavior is in a group situation and what they expect their child to exhibit. Remember, at this age, every situation is a new one for a toddler. They’ve never been through this before, so their naturally egocentric view of the world usually leaves them feeling entitled to do whatever they please. Each parent also needs to take into consideration their own child’s temperament. Some children may be a little reticent to join in and may initially choose to sit back and observe, which is absolutely okay. We’re not talking about forcing children to participate when they’re not ready, we’re looking to curb the disruptive behaviors that get in the way of allowing them to actually experience the situation. Running around and disrupting the rest of the class is the non-negotiable.

If the toddler persists in running, climbing and ignoring the basic purpose of the class, the parent needs to be clear that they have stated and modeled what is expected. If the child is physically brought back to the circle and starts to cry, this may escalate into a tantrum and the parent may have to make the decision to remove the child from the room. The child is now learning that those behaviors are not tolerated in music class and that there are consequences to his actions. The parent may also need to reevaluate whether or not their child is ready to participate in this type of class at this age. They may be better off waiting a few months and instead enrolling the child in a class more suited to where he’s at right now, probably one where he can run and play. On the parent’s part, this means respecting and accepting the child’s limitations, as well. What’s important is that the situation is being handled consistently, the child is learning both what’s expected and that he’s respected, and the parent feels just a little bit more in control.

In our family, diaper changing became another non-negotiable. Being the parents of a boy, and boys tending to potty train at an older age, we realized we could easily be changing diapers for three or more years. It was up to us to decide if they were going to be a pleasant three years or a daily struggle. Left to his own devices, my son would have chosen the fun of the daily struggle, but Mom had other ideas. There was no way I was going to dread doing this 4 or 5 times a day.

I’ve found that with a non-negotiable it often tends to come down to a stand-off during testing time. We were going along fine with the diaper thing and then one day my son, a natural born scientist as most toddlers are, decided to experiment. He did his best attempt to wriggle away: twisting, turning and bucking his body each time I’d try to get the diaper under him. Unsuccessful in my attempts to distract him with a toy or book, I held him down and calmly (again, outwardly at least) explained that this was diaper time and he was expected to stay still until he was changed. No toddler likes to be restrained, so of course this infuriated him, escalating the wriggling behavior with the new addition of crying. We were in tantrum territory.

I continued to hold him down, gently but firmly, and again stated that this was diaper time and he could move around once he was changed. He continued to cry and wriggle. Eventually he stayed still long enough for me to change him, even though he was still crying. He was getting the idea: Mom meant business. With each lesson learned, the testing continues and this was no different. At the next several diaper changes he tested my consistency, checking to see if this was just a one-time thing or what was now expected. He learned that this was what was expected and eventually gave up the fight, happily accepting a book and chattering away as his diaper was changed. Like any good scientist, occasionally he’d test, just to see whether or not the diaper rule had changed; but he came to understand that this really was a non-negotiable and accepted it.

Parenting is a tricky combination of trial and error, two steps forward, one step back. We may often feel like we’re “flying by the seat of our pants” (to continue the metaphors), usually on a daily basis. We may second guess some of our decisions and wonder if we’re handling things in a manner that best teaches our children the things we want them to learn, in our quest to raise them into happy, compassionate beings. That’s okay, we’re human. By turning that corner and accepting that you now have to be “the heavy”, you’ll get more comfortable being the authority and saying no when the non-negotiables arise. This, in turn, will help both you and your toddler sleep more soundly at night. The matter’s been settled. He can happily go about doing his job, and you yours.

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