Telling your toddler "no" is one of the easiest forms of discipline, but it isn't always the most effective. Here are 10 better ways to get your tot to listen.
By Mike Mitchell
There are better ways to deny, deter, or discipline your child than always saying "no." Aside from the obvious exhaustion -- for both parent and child -- some parenting experts believe that saying "no" too much can breed resentment or plant seeds for future rebellion. According to Audrey Ricker, Psy.D., co-author of Backtalk: 4 Steps in Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids, using "no" too often can desensitize a child to its meaning, so save the word for life-threatening situations instead. Use short, clear and concise phrases to explain why your toddler shouldn't do something. Try these 10 short sentences to substitute for "no."
"I know you like ice cream, but eating too much is not good."
David Walsh, Ph.D., author of No: Why Kids -- Of All Ages -- Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, suggests that parents deny certain junk food requests, like ice cream and candy, by offering a healthier alternative, such as yogurt. Avoid the promise of "maybe tomorrow," Dr. Walsh says. "Toddlers can't comprehend time very well, so it doesn't make sense to tell them exactly when in the future they will get ice cream. Most toddlers just want what they want, so the parents need to calmly, firmly, and warmly offer the healthy snack in spite of a toddler's protests." This way, your toddler still gets a treat, but it's better option.
"Food is for eating, not for flinging."
Toddlers tend to play with food because they might still be full from a previous meal. The food then becomes a toy, says Linda Shook Sorkin, a licensed marriage and family therapist and expert contributor for KidPointz.com. Instead of shouting as your toddler flings a bowl full of macaroni and cheese to the floor, simply take the bowl away and explain the reason why he shouldn't throw food. Use this calm, explanatory approach when your little one starts bouncing on the bed in the late hours by saying, "Beds are for sleeping and relaxing, not for jumping." But if he takes a sip of milk without protest, acknowledge the good behavior with a compliment.
"Don't knock down Legos. Let me show you how to play."
If your curious toddler decides to go Godzilla on his big brother's Lego tower, it's not always a sign of jealousy -- at least not consciously, explains Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child. "He may not be aware that he is jealous of his brother's talent. He may simply see the Lego building and think that it would be fun to knock it down," Dr. Walfish says. "Most kids hate to be told what to do, some more than others. But if your child hears you reflect out loud what he should want and feel, this will help raise his self-awareness and feel seen, acknowledged, and understood. This is empathy." Ask if you can join in and model the proper way to play with others.
"Things need to grow. Let's be gentle."
If you catch your toddler ripping apart prized peonies or pulling a family pet's tail, point out that plants and animals are alive too. "When you hurt the flower (or pet), you hurt its feelings and growth." This helps you child develop empathy and awareness of the feelings of other living beings. "Give the child responsibility to learn that plants should be treated with respect, as with nature in general," says Marva Soogrim, the nanny of choice for celebrity A-listers, including Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts, and Courteney Cox, and the founder of MarvalousBabies.com.
"We use our words, not our hands."
This is a clever approach to avoid saying "No hitting your sister." "A toddler's capacity to understand what it means to hit others is very limited. It's important to stop the aggressor immediately and then calmly state the behavior you want, by saying 'We do not hit when we are angry,'" Shook Sorkin explains. In many instances, the toddler is expressing his frustrations or seeking attention. "Ask siblings to hug each other to cultivate affection. Help kids calm down when they are angry or ask what they want when they are unhappy," she says. Another variation is to help the child begin identifying the feelings he is experiencing in any given moment. Once that feeling is identified, take a step further to solve the problem.
"I can't understand you when you whine like that. Tell me in your regular voice."
As your tot learns new words, she may whine to protest or request something. Avoid saying, "Stop whining" or "We don't whine." Instead, encourage her to communicate with simple words. Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast, suggests saying, "I can't understand you when you use the whiny voice." This can convince your child to speak in a normal tone. "The most powerful and natural motivator will be the reward of having her words, feelings, or requests heard and responded to. This approach carries the implicit lesson that the child has a choice in not just her tone of voice but in much of her behavior."
"Watch out! Mommy is coming to get you."
Laughter can be a wonderful asset when disciplining because it shows that you can identify when a more lighthearted approach is best. "Distraction and humor are excellent strategies to use with toddlers who are feeling stubborn or irritable," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). "Little kids love to laugh, so doing something silly can be a fun and caring way to redirect them towards greater cooperation. You don't have to be a great comedian to do this. You can say a funny warning, like 'Here come the tickle fingers!'" The next time your toddler is knocking the garbage can over or throwing a ball in the house, playfully chase him into another room where there are more appropriate forms of engagement.
"Can mommy have the phone? You can have this toy."
Your child may want to hold your iPhone every time it rings in the grocery store, but it's not a plaything. Give your child a small and engaging toy instead the next time she tries to grab the phone. "It's easier for children to replace a behavior than to stop it," Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. If you don't have a toy with you, try handing her a safe and inedible item (like a plastic ball) that can't be destroyed or cause a mess and isn't dangerous. You can also use the opportunity to educate them on the different items in the store.
"Leave your shoes on. We take our shoes off only at home."
Your toddler just began wearing shoes and he makes every attempt to take them off. Instead of chiding him to "stop taking your shoes off," explain what you want him to do instead. This can even be applied to toddlers who start wearing their wardrobes at inopportune times. Try, "We wear bathing suits at the beach, not at the playground." Or if your toddler climbs on top of furniture say, "Chairs are for sitting down" or "Please stand on the floor."
"Stop!" "Danger!" or "Hot!"
Sometimes "no" isn't enough to communicate possible danger. Instead, use other strong adjectives or verbs with a tone of urgency to convey a sense of urgency. "Parents forget that they have to work hard at the positive communication they have with kids for the negative to be effective," Dr. Ricker says. She suggests parents communicate danger by "raising their voice, shaking their finger or even looking scared." This means that if your toddler is about to put his hand on the stove -- even when it's not in use -- express your fear with alarming phrases and move him to a safer place immediately.
This article first appeared on Parents.com. See more tips on effective discipline.
Mike Mitchell is a freelance writer by hobby and full-time copy writer by trade. He's written for the Chicago Sun-Times, Southtown Star, and Naperville Sun. He's the father of a toddler, and he and his wife are expecting another child in summer 2012.