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What Happened When My Toddler Learned How to Say ‘No’

toddler

While we were on vacation at the end of the summer, my 16-month-old daughter suddenly started saying no. She’d been shaking her head for a while, but now when we read her favorite book (“Are You a Cow?” by Sandra Boynton) she actually answered the questions.

“Hey Penrose! Are you a cow?”

“Noooooo.”

“Are you a dog?”

“Nooooo.”

READ: Diagnosis Toddleritis

At first, it was adorable, and we asked her over and over, just to provoke the response. But when we got home, the reality of a toddler with the ability to verbalize opposition hit me.

“Hey Penrose! We’re going to go upstairs, OK?”

“Noooooo.”

“Penrose, I’m going to hand you to Daddy now, OK?”

“Nooooo.”

“Here’s your toothbrush! Brush your teeth, OK?”

“Nooooo. No no nonny no.”

After a week or so of getting stonewalled, I realized how many times a day I made what should have been a statement—”Time to brush your teeth!”—into a question, leaving the door open for the drawn out, sweet sounding “no” at which she’d become an expert. Why was I compulsively adding that “OK?” to every direction? To soften the blow? To avoid sounding bossy?

READ: Please Don’t Feed My Toddler Without Asking Me

Much has been made of late about women’s speech patterns. Up-talk, talking in your vocal fry, and other stereotypical characteristics of female speech have been lambasted. The internet is rife with articles about the “one thing you must never say if you want to have any credibility with your older, white, male colleagues,” or something of that nature. It made me think: Was I stamping the “OK?” on the end of every direction with my students or my coworkers? If so, was it an unconscious effort to seem accommodating where I might be better served as a benevolent dictator?

As an English teacher, I spend a substantial part of each year teaching students the importance of using open questions—questions that can’t be answered with yes or no—in order to glean the most information they can from documents and interview subjects. Could I apply that to my conversations with Penrose, too?

I’ve started paying attention to the way I give her directions. Instead of “Grab your shoes, OK?” I ask, “Which pair of shoes would you like to wear?” She’s then free to choose her pink cheetah print shoes, leaving the pair with lavender hearts on the floor. “It’s tooth brushing time!” I announce every night before bed. It’s tooth brushing time whether it’s OK or not, after all.

READ: How My Toddler’s Adjusting to Life With Two

Being able to say “no” gives Penrose some agency and control. She can tell me whether or not she wants a blanket without fussing and throwing it out of her crib. She can tell me which snacks she would rather not have, and through process of elimination she gets what she would like to eat. And by giving her directions without asking for approval and allowing her to make choices when it’s appropriate, our communication has become more clear and positive. We’re both set up for success. And when I need a laugh, I can always ask Penrose an important question:

“Hey Penrose! Are you a duck?”

“Noooo.”

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