What to do when 'No!' is your child's favorite word
Q: My 18-month-old son's favorite word is "no!" He's extremely active and into everything, even (or especially) the things we've told him are "no-no's." He absolutely flips out when he can't have his way.
His dad says I've spoiled him by letting him get away with too much, but I don't see that his strict approach works very well either. Is this already the beginning of the "terrible two's"? And what is the current wisdom about how to make this age less terrible?
A: One of a child's main developmental tasks in the second year of life is to demonstrate that he is a separate person with a mind of his own. As you are discovering with your son, children accomplish this task in some noisy and irritating ways. At 18 months of age, your son has moved beyond the total dependency of the first year of life. But he doesn't yet have fancy words to plead and reason with you -- nor does he have well-developed mental or physical skills that allow him to be as independent as he'd like.
So, to show you he's his own person, he resorts to using the only tools he has: Saying no, doing the opposite of what he's told, and throwing a tantrum when his efforts fail.
At this age a child also repeats what he hears. And since most parents find themselves saying "no-no" a lot, toddlers throw that word right back at them. Furthermore, toddlers have insatiable curiosity as well as a new mobility that allows them to act on their curiosity.
And they are only beginning to learn and remember the rules about what's OK to touch and what's off limits. Often, their troublesome exploration is not deliberate disobedience but just an enthusiastic expression of their natural curiosity.
That said, your job as parents is to help your son find a healthy balance of independence and cooperation. This requires time and patience, but there are several key steps that will make this gradual process go more smoothly for you and your son.
So your son can express his natural curiosity freely and safely, move dangerous or fragile objects out of his reach and keep safe, interesting objects where he can explore them to his heart's content.
Use simple words and gestures to set clear limits for your son. Keep in mind that if limits are too strict, your son will feel angry and frustrated much of the time, and that will be difficult for both you and him. But if limits are too liberal, he will feel overwhelmed and insecure. Picture limits as a corral that is just the right size, giving your son freedom and opportunities within safe and reasonable boundaries.
Whenever possible, give your son choices. For example, let him choose whether to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt; whether to have peaches or applesauce for a snack; whether to brush his teeth before or after his bath. When children feel they have some power over the things that affect them, they are more willing to accept their parents' power when they need to.
When necessary to stop your son from doing something unacceptable, offer an alternative. For example, when you move him away from the knobs on the stereo, give him a colorful puzzle and say, "Let's play with this instead."
Reserve your harsh voice for the most important warnings you need to give your son. For example, if he reaches for a cup of hot coffee or darts toward the street, shout, "Stop!" or "Danger!" Too often we parents bombard our young children with so many sharp directives that they lose their effectiveness. Then, when we truly need to stop our child in a hurry, we're at a loss.
At those times when your child "flips out" (as toddlers are bound to do), give him some space and don't engage in a battle. Only if he is putting himself or someone else in danger, hold him firmly and gently until he begins to settle down.
Teach your son words to express his feelings. When he begins to get upset, say, "You're angry," or "I know you don't want to do this right now." Over time, he will learn to use words to tell you how he feels, and he will have less need to act out his anger.
The toddler period is the time for you to begin developing a very important parenting habit: Catch your child being good. When your son follows a simple direction or calmly accepts a limit you've set, give him a big smile and tell him you like what he did. Young children want their parents' approval; when you pay attention to their positive behavior, they are likely to repeat it again and again.
Dr. Martha Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. You can e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org or send them to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.