Photo: Melissa Cooper

We all know parenting is hard. It’s like saying rock climbing blindfolded and handcuffed is hard. Little people are unpredictable. And even when they are generally good, they each have their days. Don’t we all?

Here’s the thing. I had a tough moment of realization recently and it hurt a little. (Okay, a lot) Are you ready for it? Here goes:

I directly contribute to the days when my toddler slides to the more difficult end of the behavior scale with the number of times I say “no.”

While I cannot pinpoint the exact moment this hit me, I started to keep track of her reactions when the word “no” came out of my mouth. “No” is like a curse word to toddlers. It is their kryptonite. I’m fairly certain I could find scientific evidence of this if I tried hard enough.

The other struggle with “no” for my almost 3 year old is that her belief system tells her that the correct response to “no” is “please” and that it should automatically change my answer to “yes.” It’s as though, in her world, the only reason I could possibly say no is because she didn’t ask me politely.

So what do we do? How do we continue to actually parent these kids/keep them safe/steer them in the right direction, when the act of doing so results in frustration for both parties? I don’t think there is a “right” answer to this question, but I will share with you the things I have tried that work (and the ones that don’t.)

1. I started saying “no” less.

Seriously. This might seem painfully obvious (and sort of lazy), but it helps. I take a moment to pause and evaluate now when my daughter asks me a question. If my inclination is to say “no,” why is that? Is it because I will be inconvenienced? Or because I don’t feel like reading that book for the 14th time this afternoon? Unless I absolutely need to say no, I try to say yes. The beauty of this change for me is that now, when I do say no (way less often), I get less push back. It’s not always the case, and I still catch myself saying no to things without really thinking, but I’m working at it each day and it is making a difference.

2. I redirect.

When I do need (or want) to say no, I have found that avoiding the actual word “no” and redirecting to another option can also help. This one works the best for us when the request involves something with a somewhat comparable alternative. Last week I was working on a project for our house that involved me using scissors and tape. Per usual, my daughter wanted to “help.” Obviously I’m not going to give scissors to my 2 year old, so I offered to let her enhance the project with some Color Wonder© stamps. (By the way, can we all just pause here and offer a round of applause for the brains behind markers, stamps and paint that will not ruin every surface in our homes? I would sincerely love to hug and bake cookies for the person who came up with this idea.) We also have our play kitchen in our actual kitchen instead of in the playroom. Kids like to do what we do, so we have found ways to allow for that desire to be fulfilled without putting our little one in harms way.

3. Offering other choices.

We haven’t had much success with this one, but I know several mom friends who have, so it’s definitely worth putting on the list. When your child is doing something, or wants to do something that isn’t a good idea (i.e. giving your 75 lb dog a bath by himself), offering other options can sometimes help them feel like you aren’t really saying no. Instead of saying, “no, you may not wash the dog by yourself,” try “I really appreciate that you want to help! Do you know what would be more helpful? I could use a new drawing to hang on the refrigerator or you can sing to your dolls.” If your child is strong willed like mine, this one may not be as successful, but it is definitely worth a shot.

4. Recognize timing patterns.

As I really started paying attention to how often I was saying “no,” I also noticed that there was a particular time of day when it was a big issue. Each night as I was cooking dinner, I seemed to be saying “no” the most. You see, my child’s needs and my needs were colliding at the same time each evening. After her afternoon nap, my daughter seems to want more physical attention/affection. This typically falls around the same time that I want to get dinner ready for our family so we can eat together. This was making dinner prep extra stressful every night, so I made some adjustments. When I find moments through the day to cut vegetables or marinade some chicken, I fit it in. By cutting down on the actual prep I need to do right when my daughter wants to be held every day, I have created more opportunities to say “yes, I’d love to hold you” while remaining on schedule with dinner. We also do crock pot meals when we can. These solutions don’t always work, but when they do our nights are much more enjoyable.

5. Explain your no.

This will not always work (but hey, what does?). When your child reaches an age where they can begin to grasp the idea of a consequence, this pairs beautifully with some of the options above. Tonight while taking a bath, my daughter requested bubbles. As soon as I finished washing her hair, I added bubbles and some water to let her play. Her immediate question is always “can I lay down in them, Mommy?” This may seem like a harmless request until you’ve dealt with her hair at bath time. It is long. And curly. And constantly one giant knot. So when she lies down in the bubbles, we have to repeat the entire process of washing her hair. Which she hates. I have learned the best response to her in this instance is still yes – BUT. “Yes, honey, you may lay down in the bubbles. But, if you do, we are going to have to wash and comb your hair again before you get out. Do you want to do that?” After a very quick evaluation of this option, she chooses to remain upright and let her toys lay down instead.

Every day I learn something from our daughter. Whether it is about her, about me, or about life in general, I have found that being a parent means you are in a constant state of learning. My little teacher is adorable, sassy, and continues to help me evolve into the mom I really want to be.