One of the most frequent questions we get at our toddler workshops is, “how can I stop saying ‘no’ all the time?” Caregivers worry that toddlers won’t learn how to be a part of the world without basic limits, but get weary of repeating “no” all day long.
The first, easiest answer, is create an environment where little is off-limits. Make a space full of invitations to explore. Put your breakables away for a few years, or up on a shelf out of the toddler’s eyeline. Install a gate in front of the stairs. Make the space set limits, so you can spend your interactions building your relationship.
For the limits you do need to set, remember that “No” and “Don’t _____” have minimal staying power with toddlers. Impulse control isn’t developed, anticipating consequences isn’t much of a possibility. Saying what you do want goes farther, but the reason we can’t leave little ones alone is they can’t be reliable about these things.
If there isn’t any way to move things out of sight/reach, prepare yourself for lots of repetition. Lots. Find some way to talk to yourself through it so you don’t wind up taking it personally or projecting “bad behavior” onto the child, because it isn’t, it’s developmentally appropriate for toddlers to explore. Their job is to explore the world and make connections. Hampering that desire will decrease your child’s curiosity and impact learning down the road.
It’s also normal for children to do the same thing again and again, even after being redirected. Find a handy phrase like, “here is your toy,” handing the child something groovy and allowed, or “gentle touch” while helping the child touch a special item, if that’s okay, and get ready to say it a lot.
It eases the situation if I already have those go-to statements in mind– it helps keep me from getting cranky and saying things I don’t really want to say in the moment.
I believe the boundaries we all want our kids to have can be taught by modeling and increasing their responsibility as they get older– putting things away now doesn’t preclude teaching these things later, it just makes it easier to get through the day now.
Remember, modeling is the best teacher. Even if you use the word “no” sparingly, you’re going to hear it repeated back to you.