Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Terrific 2s! Figuring out when to say "no". (NO! No.. WILL! No!!!)

It's hard to say "no" to this guy!

Will is in his terrific 2s!  He's mobile AND he's verbal, and that means he's getting into more things and asking for more things than ever before.  Having a toddler who can tell us what he wants sometimes saves a lot of frustration, but it also means we've had to do a lot of thinking about when to say "yes" and when to say "no".

Some cases are pretty cut and dry.  No, you may not sit on Andrew.  I feel pretty confident about this decision.  Others have Greg and I scratching our heads in disagreement, because while our parenting philosophy lines up, our interpretation of which category a particular situation falls into might not.  He's in distress!  I need to comfort him!  He's throwing a tantrum because he wants your attention and you're giving in!  AHHHH!!!!

Suffice to say, I've been doing a lot of thinking (and reading, and thinking) about this, and thought it'd be helpful for me to organize my thoughts on when to say "No."

What am I trying to teach him?

Often when I say "yes" or "no" my decision is influenced by what I'm trying to teach Will about how he should behave and how the world (or at least our family) works.

Things I do want to teach Will: 

  • I am on your side, and if you want something that's reasonable and I can help you get it, I will.  Crying because you've misplaced a favorite toy? I'll help you find it.  You're screaming in frustration because I've got your sneakers and you want to wear your rain boots outside but it's not raining?  You know what, OK, but you can't wear your sneakers when it's wet out.
  • Our family is consistent and fair.  We treat each other with respect.  We're not going to let you repeatedly slam the doors to your toy kitchen or scream at the dinner table, it's too loud for the rest of us.  I will listen to what you want, and if I say no, it's for a good reason.  
  • Sometimes we're disappointed, but we can recover and still have a good day.  Unless we're out of coffee.  
  • If there's conflict, the needs of the family outweigh the needs of the individual.  You want to stay and play with your train set, but we need to go get groceries so we can eat dinner.  I'll give you a five minute warning, but we're going to the grocery store!   Yes, sometimes I let you use your learning tower at the counter when I prepare lunch, but we're running behind today, and I really can't, I'm sorry but no.
  • You may not do things that are dangerous to yourself or others, or destructive.  

Things I do not want to teach Will:

  • If you scream long enough, I will probably give you what you want.  I may comfort you, and give you hugs, and tell you I still love you, but you will not be getting Halloween candy for dinner, playing with the stove knobs, or opening that toy package in the store.
  • Sometimes I will say "no" just  to teach you to live with not getting your way or because I have more power than you.  This can be tough, I think there's a tendency to worry that if a toddler is screaming, and you then give them what they want, you're teaching them to scream whenever they want something.  I believe that toddlers scream in frustration as a means of communication as well as a means of protest, and if they're communicating that they want something and you haven't responded yet, it's OK to say yes and help them.  If they're screaming after you've said no clearly, then they're protesting and  my strategy is to comfort him if he's receptive, and give him some space and wait it out if he's not.  Otherwise, you're stuck trying to respond to toddler requests in the nano-second before they start fussing, or you're pigeon-holed into saying no.  Sometimes I tell Will I need to think for a second, and then I say "OK, that's all right" or "No, that doesn't work".  Of course, I've also read that if you never, ever change your mind once you say no, they learn to be stubborn and closed-minded.  I've decided that's a nuance for parents of t'weens and teens, NOT toddlers.

Some Pitfalls

  • The fear of saying "yes" because it's the "easy" way.  Sometimes I think as parents we feel pressure to say "no" and be stuck listening to our kids complain because we worry that otherwise we're taking "the easy way" out and spoiling our kids.  Parenting is hard, and sometimes what's "easy" and keeps the kids quiet in the moment really IS the wrong decision.  But not always!  Toddlers live in a world of frustration, they get upset and genuinely need our help often.  Yes, he's going to be quiet and stop complaining if I give him what he wants right now, but if what he wants is something that's easy for me to do, doesn't hurt himself or others or inconvenience the family, then is that necessarily wrong or overly permissive?  I think there are PLENTY of opportunities in a given day for me to say "no" and for Will to learn to live with the disappointment.  I like to save "no" for when I need it, and my hope is that Will actually respects my "no" answers more because I'm willing to say "yes" so often.  
  • How much consistency is there between caretakers? My husband and I agree freakishly often, but even we don't always agree, and often we don't find out until after the fact that we're doing things differently.  "You let him turn the lights on and off as much as he wants before bedtime?  I only let him do it once!"  (Turns out, there are quite a few little differences in our bedtime routine.  Structure's the same, details are different.)  And grandparents?  It's a time honored tradition for grandparents to reserve the word "no" for extreme cases when safety is at risk.  "Cookie?  Nana cookie?"  "Sea glass?  Mimi does?"  Umm, no, you can't have Nana cookies for breakfast and you can't carry Mimi's sea glass around the kitchen and leave it for Andrew to choke on.  At first I did some worrying that Will might get confused about the rules.  Then I realized that Will has learned to have different expectations of his caregivers, and that's OK.  He knows that Mimi will drop everything and let him lead her around by the hand to play with his toys.  He knows Mom can't always do that.  He knows both his Grampas will pick him up and carry him around whenever he asks.  He knows Dad can't always do that.  He has different relationships with and expectations of us, and as long as the big rules remain the same (you eat in your high chair, you sleep in your crib after you read your stories) it usually works out.

Book Recommendation

My Uncle John, who introduced me to the term "terrific 2s" and who is one of my parenting role models, gave Will a great book for Christmas last year called "No, David!" by David Shannon.  It's a really funny picture book of a young child doing lots of things that make his parents yell "No!", but that ends with "Yes, David, we love you."  Such a great message and a fun book to read with toddlers who are dealing with their own frustration of having to hear "No" more often than they'd like!  There's even a Christmas version.

A Closing Thought

This blog post was partially inspired by a friend of mine posting about a rough morning she had when she and her husband disagreed on whether to say no to their toddler, and there were tears, and she had that horrible gut-wrenching "Am I scarring my child for LIFE?!" moment.  (I've so had those moments.)

Luckily for us, our kids' behavior and happiness is the SUM of all the parenting decisions we make, not the result of any individual one.  I'm going to keep trying my best to make thoughtful parenting decisions, to make my kids feel lovable and loved, and to let go of some of my fears that I'm making mistakes along the way.

And when Will screams "NO, Mommy, NO!!!" when I reach for his train set, I'm probably going to laugh.  Then I'll put the train down.  I can show by example that it's nice to respect other people's things.  I'll let Andrew teach him how to share.  ;)


  1. A pediatrician gave me a great piece of advice years ago. "If you're gonna cave, cave." I love that.