The Endless No's
The technical name for your child's fascination with the word "no" is "toddler refusal" -- and the simple fact is that toddlers say "no" because they can. "They've just found out that they have a will, and they want to exercise it," explains Susanne Denham, professor of developmental psychology at George Mason University and author of Emotional Development in Young Children. This phase often comes on suddenly, leaving parents perplexed over their toddler's sudden show of defiance. Mike Lynd, of Redwood City, California, says his first child, Meredith, began saying "no" when she turned 2. "All of a sudden," Lynd says, "everything was 'no.' And she'd wind up to it in this funny way -- 'Nnnnnnnnnnno.'" The stage can disappear as quickly as it appeared, too. "One day Meredith opened her mouth," Lynd says, "and instead of 'No,' out came 'Mmmmmmm I don't know.' And that was the end of it." While waiting out this trying stage, though, you may want to try some coping strategies.
What to do
Offer choices. "Twos, twos -- everything comes in twos these days!" groans John Raeside, father of 2-year-old Abby. You'll be tired of it too, before this phase is over -- but offering a limited choice is absolutely the best way of avoiding a showdown with your toddler. "Do you want to wear the white shoes or the red shoes today?" "Do you want juice or milk?" "Okay, time to choose! Do you want to put away your blocks or your stuffed animals?" Two choices are enough at this stage, and this technique can be used for everything from getting dressed to solving play date disputes: "Do you want to play nicely with Timmy, or do you want to play by yourself?" Counting sometimes works with indecisive toddlers: "I'm going to count to ten and then you choose, or I'll choose for you." Your toddler will likely become decisive once you start the countdown. (Save this counting technique for last resorts because it loses its power if you use it too often.)
Offer the appearance of options. To make this work, you have to keep two important facts in your mind: You know more than your toddler does, and virtually everything can be turned into a choice. Say, "Do you want to get out of the car now or play for two minutes and then get out of the car?" Either way, she gets out of the car. Or say, "Do you want to put your sweater on frontward or backward?" And since you both know she's not going to put her sweater on backward, what you're doing here is using humor to break the tension (and yes, if she calls your bluff, you have to let her wear it backward). Either way, she thinks she has a choice.
Teach alternatives to "no." One of the reasons toddlers say "no" so much is that they don't know that many words. Turn "no" into a game: "What's the opposite of 'no'?" (That one's easy.) "What comes in between 'no' and 'yes'?" (Maybe, perhaps, and possibly.) "What's a nicer way to say 'no'?" ("No, thank you." If your toddler's very verbal, try, "No, thank you very much, I couldn't possibly.")
You can make a "no" response less automatic (and maybe even get a "yes!") if you set up a situation in advance with a silly question: "What would a bird say if you said, 'Mr. Bird, would you like a worm?'" When your toddler responds with, "Yes!" you follow up with: "And what would you say if I asked you if you'd like a hamburger?" With any luck, by this point your toddler will be giggling too much to rebuff the hamburger.
If all else fails, teach your toddler the "No No Song" (remember Ringo? "No thank you please, it only makes me sneeze...."). Sing it together to break up the tension that brews when your toddler is being contrary.
Stand your ground. There will be times when, despite your best efforts to avoid or distract, you end up in a showdown with your toddler. If your toddler stops in the middle of the street and refuses to move, for example, you'll move him, and quickly. But safety concerns aren't the only reason to be firm. "A toddler has a will -- but he can't always be exerting it all over the place," says Denham. "It's just too messy." It's perfectly appropriate at times to say "This is not a time when I can give you a choice. There's no choosing now. I know that you don't like this, and I'm sorry, but this is the way it's going to be." You might even pull rank: "I'm the mommy, that's why."