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Allow Your Toddler to Say "No"
by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
Excerpted from Aletha Solter's book, Raising Drug-Free Kids (Da Capo Press, 2006)
The slogan "just say no" to drugs reflects the idea that resisting drugs starts with taking a simple but firm stand against peer pressure. This is an important factor in helping kids stay off drugs. However, learning to say "no" begins long before adolescence. Toddlers are very good at saying "no," and yet many parents think they should discourage or punish such behavior. When toddlers are punished for saying "no" to their parents, they may be ill equipped to say "no" later on to their peers. They may even associate taking a negative stand with fear of rejection.
Most toddlers go through a period of "negativism" between one and three years of age. This stage of development is healthy and normal. Toddlers want to assert themselves, and they practice saying "no" just as they practice other skills such as climbing stairs or feeding themselves. If your toddler experiences anger, rejection, or punishment, he will learn that saying "no" is risky business. This doesn't imply that you must bend your rules and let him do whatever he wants. But you can be firm without becoming angry or punishing him for saying "no," and you can allow him to express himself.
For situations that are not very important, allow your toddler to have the upper hand. For example, if you say, "You can wear your red shirt today," but your two-year-old says, "No!" it's okay to reply, "What color shirt would you like to wear?" and then let him choose another shirt.
For situations in which you cannot negotiate, such as putting your toddler in a car seat, first try some non-coercive methods for encouraging your child to cooperate, such as giving choices or making it fun. (You can say, for example, "What toy would you like to bring with you?" or "Let's sing a song while I buckle you in your car seat.") If your child is still resistant, you may have to use force (but not violence) to put him into the car seat even though he protests strongly. Explain calmly why he needs to be buckled in, and avoid shaming him or becoming angry. Allow him to have his feelings, saying, "It's okay to be angry. I know you don't like sitting in your car seat." By being firm and matter-of-fact, but allowing your child to protest, you are letting him know that it's okay for him to disagree with you, even though, in that particular situation, you must override his wishes.
This stage may be difficult for you if you were punished for saying "no" to your own parents. You may feel impatient, angry, or even powerless with your strong and willful toddler. Try to remember that you are not the target and that your child is simply practicing a vital skill. Imagine your child as a teenager with the courage to say "no" to his peers who offer him alcohol or drugs. Think of these early years as training for that situation.
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.