Parenting a toddler can be, at times, incredibly difficult and infuriatingly frustrating- especially when they refuse to do what we tell them. Toddlers don’t understand the concept of right versus wrong, and have a very limited grasp of what's safe and what's dangerous. While it's our job as parents to make those decisions for our children until they're old enough to make them on their own, it’s never too early to gently encourage our children to make correct choices. We can do so in the language that we use by actively affirming positive choices to empower our children instead of rebuking negative actions.
I’m the first to admit that when a child does something wrong, it’s our first instinct to yell, “No, don’t do that!” In this case, we're chastising the child for their actions. We're telling the child that what they're doing right now isn't okay. However, the child has no understanding of where the line is between a permitted action and an unacceptable one. The child won’t know what to do the next time they're in a similar situation.
Instead of discipling the not-so-good behaviors, you can empower your children to make better decisions on their own by guiding gently them towards desired behaviors. When my daughter was a baby, I actively used positive language– if she hit me, I simply would say, “We give hugs and kisses,” and give her a hug. If she put something in her mouth that I didn’t want her to chew on, I would say, “That toy is for rolling on the floor.” If she began to run away from me, I’d say, “We’re going this way.” If she drew on the wall, I'd counter with, “We draw on paper”. This tells the child what they should be doing instead so that they can learn to make better choices on their own. Please note that this is all done in a controlled environment. I would never allow my daughter to get into a potentially unsafe situation just to teach her a lesson.
As my daughter got older and began to understand the consequences of her actions, I started explaining to her why certain actions weren’t permitted: “Hugs feel nice but hitting hurts.” “You can push this button in the elevator; that one goes the wrong way.” “We hold hands walking on the street; there are cars going fast and I don’t want you to fall.”
There are other reasons to try to limit our outbreaks of “No, don’t do that!” If we overuse it, our kids may not take it seriously in a critical situation. It’s perfectly normal for toddlers to push our limits as they explore the world; so the more frequently we yell “No!”, the less likely they'll react to it.
Recently, my two-year-old daughter and I were playing in the yard and she decided suddenly to run towards the road. This was a situation where yelling “Stop!” was a necessity. Because I’ve never had to shout it before, she stopped immediately. We need our children to understand that we only yell when it's important.
By giving our children alternatives to negative behaviors, we allow them the freedom to make their own decisions. Imagine being constantly told, “No, don’t do that,” whenever you tried something new; it’s downright demoralizing. In contrast, children who make their own choices without fear of being chastised grow more independent and more confident. By simply changing the way we present right from wrong, we can empower our children to make their own decisions from a very young age, thus preparing them for the countless decisions they’ll inevitably make throughout their lives.