7 alternatives to saying “no” to your child

Jack trying to take Bear's toy (as usual)

Jack trying to take Bear’s toy (as usual)


Did you know that apparently children hear “no” or something like it about 9 times PER HOUR! Can you imagine how you would feel if people criticized your behavior that often? Also, hearing “no” is not very informative about what behavior is acceptable, or even what specifically is wrong about a behavior. Here are some alternatives (coming from someone with a doctorate in child psychology, so it’s all research supported to work!)

  1. Say the positive alternative behavior, like “gentle.” Jack grabs Bear (our dog) often, so we tell him “gentle” and model for him how to pet Bear. This show your child what the correct behavior is, which is more helpful than a vague criticism. Other examples are saying “walk please” if your child is running, or “let’s hear your indoor voice” if they are being loud.
  2. Prevent yourself from having to say no by babyproofing. If your outlets are all covered, you never have to say no to your child who is playing near the outlet.
  3. Choose your battles and be aware of age-appropriate expectations. Are you stressing and saying “no throwing food” to your 9 months old at every meal? That’s normal behavior at that age, so while you can remind them “food on the table please” it’s likely more worth it to let it go and just clean up afterwards (or get a dog!). Other examples are relaxing about the fact that your child will make a mess with toys, may bang things too loudly, or can’t sit still for very long. These are all normal for babies/toddlers.
  4. Redirect your child before a problem happens. If I see Jack about to grab Bear’s bone, instead of “no” I can say “Jack” to get his attention, and then offer him another toy or lead him to another activity.
  5. Say “I’m so glad you showed me you need help!” If Jack is ramming his cart against the wall, instead of saying “no” I can use that phrase and come over to help him turn around. This makes you seem like you are on your child’s team and they start to learn they can ask you for help when they need something without you becoming angry.
  6. Say “oops!” or “uh oh!” It’s great to get in the habit of using any of these phrases if your child does something that upsets you by accident. It diffuses the situation if they broke a glass and you say “whoopsy!” instead of “no, Jack! why did you do that?”
  7. Say the rule like “hands are for hugging, not for hitting.” If your child breaks one of the (hopefully few and easy to remember) rules, you can restate the rule in a neutral tone. Bonus points if your rule is a rhyme!

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