When you say to your toddler, “careful—don’t spill that!” you may actually be putting the thought into their mind that they can spill their drink. It’s likely that all they heard was “spill that.”
Saying the word “no”—and related terms like “don’t” and “shouldn’t”—is a reflex we all default to, but you can limit the use of those words and still set healthy boundaries for your toddler. The goal of saying “no” less frequently is actually to redirect your toddler away from what you don’t want them to do and toward what you do want them to do.
Why saying "no" less matters:
Speak in positive terms
Speaking in positive terms allows your toddler to problem-solve and develop critical thinking skills. Instead of hearing what they can’t do, they’re able to focus on all of the possibilities of what they can do.
Change your language
Instead of saying “careful—don’t spill that!” you might say something like this: “thank you for using two hands to keep the milk in your cup.”
Describe what you want
Research shows that adults only listen to parts of sentences, and this is even more true for toddlers. Describing for your child the behavior you do want to see avoids suggesting or reinforcing what you don’t want them to do.
Don't let them become immune
The word “no,” if used too often, can make your toddler tune out and therefore the word loses its meaning for them. In other words, they become immune to it.
How to say "no" less:
Model and describe the behavior you do want
As much as you can, show your toddler what you want them to do instead: “here’s how to give gentle touches” (instead of pulling the dog’s tail) or “here’s how to stack the blocks” (instead of throwing them).
Explaining why something isn’t okay with you helps your toddler learn over time to make better choices. For example: “when we take our shoes off as we enter the house, it helps keep the floors clean.”
Validate their feelings
If they want something in the store, instead of saying “no, you can’t have that,” try saying “I can tell you really want that toy. It looks really special, but we aren’t going to buy it today.”
Re-direct and talk about what you want them to do by saying “let’s see if we can find a better way to do that.”
Save "NO!" for emergencies
In an emergency, a passionate “NO!” can be just the right thing. Also consider trying words like “STOP!” or “STAY THERE!”
Note to parents: Changing language habits can be hard; this way of speaking takes practice. Be patient with yourself 💙