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My Toddler Thinks My Default Setting Is No

toddler saying no

The other day, my toddler asked whether we could read one of his favorite books before getting ready to go to the supermarket. I’d prepared him for the fact that we’d be leaving the house shortly in an effort to avoid a tantrum over being whisked away from his toys, but when he asked for the one book before heading out, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to say yes. When I did, his face broke into a gigantic smile.

“You seem happy,” I told him, marveling at his reaction.

“I am,” he replied, “because I thought you were going to say no.”

“Why did you think that?” I asked. “I don’t say no all the time.”

“Well…” he paused. “You do say it a lot.”

Those were hard words to hear from an almost-4-year-old. So I thought about it. And it hit me. My son considers “no” my default setting.

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While I don’t believe I say it all the time, I suppose I say it enough to make my son assume that when he asks for something, I’m automatically going to answer in the negative.

Now I believe there are certain situations where it’s OK to use “no” as my go-to response—as in, “no, you can’t watch television before bed because we don’t do that in our house,” or, “no, you can’t have ice cream because you ate three peas and a bite of mashed potatoes and called that dinner.” But when it comes to the simpler things, like wearing a certain t-shirt over another or getting a few more minutes of playtime when we’re not in a rush, there’s really no reason for me to say no.

But clearly, I do say no unnecessarily at times.

Case in point: Sometimes my son will ask if we can read an extra bedtime story, and I’ll say no. Why do I do that? I mean, is it really going to hurt him to stay up four extra minutes? Other times, my son will ask to drink his milk out of a blue cup instead of the green one we usually use, and I’ll say no. What’s up with that? I don’t even think it’s laziness—grabbing a different cup isn’t a big deal. I think it’s that I sometimes use “no” as a way to exert my authority, perhaps to a fault.

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In my defense, my son has a tendency to be somewhat of a dictator. There are days, for example, where I’ll come out of my room wearing a red shirt and he’ll start insisting that I change into a purple one. Just the other day, I was putting things away in the kitchen when he suddenly started screaming for me to stop putting the bowls on their shelf, and instead stack them in the cabinet above the stove, even though he knows that’s not where they go.

Still, saying no to counteract toddler tyranny has its limitations, because in doing so, I’ve also somehow taught my son to lower his expectations, and frankly, I don’t think that’s a healthy mindset for a child so young.

After all, why shouldn’t he sometimes get a say in how things go? Why can’t I relax and let him pick the train t-shirt if it makes him so much happier than wearing the one with the car?

There’s definitely a time and place for saying no, but I need to be more judicious about exercising that option. I know I’m the parent, and I know I have a right to make the rules, but my son isn’t a baby anymore, and I can’t expect him to grow increasingly independent, like a healthy child should, without offering up any power or leeway in exchange.

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So going forward, I’m going to try to work on this “no” business. I’m sure I’ll be busting it out on plenty of occasions (“no, you can’t ride the dog like a surfboard”), but I’m going to do my best to use it more sparingly. Saying no when I don’t have to doesn’t make me a more powerful, authoritative parent. It just makes me an unnecessarily rigid one, and my son deserves better.

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