Among many other things, parenthood inherently carries a significant responsibility for guiding the child’s unruly behavior into positive outlets. This is important not only for the child to become a functional and productive adult in society, but also to engage the child’s potential to find success and fulfillment. It is no small order for parents to find a way to allow their child to develop freely and independently, while also helping them adhere to societal expectations and develop a sense of morals and ethics that will ensure fewer barriers of resistance in life.

One way parents must accomplish this is to strike the appropriate balance for the use of the word, “No.” Before age two, children have little to no self control over their impulses, so expecting automatic compliance at this point would be futile for the parent. Instead, during toddlerhood and the early childhood years, we focus on gentle correction and redirecting. 

Allowing safe exploration and natural consequences to occur is a great way for a child to experience their own understanding of the limits of their world. This direct process of learning should be encouraged as much as possible while the parent keeps an ever observant attention, so that they can intervene when necessary to keep the child safe. 

Limiting the use of the word “no” or other corrective statements with negative connotation is an important key for parents to avoid triggering power struggles. The imposition of the word is enough for some children to automatically defy the direction in order to assert their own independence. Children at this age are still developing their autonomy and being told “no” can feel arbitrarily limiting to this process. Especially if this occurs frequently enough, the child may develop an associative pattern for how they respond, instead of thinking through individual choices and decisions, they become triggered by the word and the feeling associated with being corrected and their “go to” response may become defiance, no matter the circumstance.

Instead, try flipping every redirection into a positive statement that encourages the desired behavior:

  • Instead of “No screaming” — try “inside voices, please.”
  • Instead of “No running” — try “walking feet, please.”
  • Instead of “No hitting” — try “keep your hands to yourself, please.”

When issued as gentle reminders, the child may be more receptive to adopt the positive behavior as opposed to “stopping” the inappropriate behavior in which they are already engaged. 

This concept works well for responding to your child’s requests, too:

For example, if your child repeatedly asks for a play date on a school night, instead of, “No, not today,” try, “Tonight is a school night, but Saturday would be a great time to invite your friends to play.” This offers both an objective explanation as well as an alternative plan, as opposed to shutting down the child’s earnest request with no other feedback. It is in this way, the parent is able to create and enforce practical limits without triggering the negative emotions and pushback that is often associated with the word “No.” 

But every balancing act has two sides. The flipside of this argument is that your child still needs to learn to cope with simply being told, “No.” If every request or behavior is sidestepped creatively, your child might have trouble coping with another expectation or adult that is not so adept at avoiding power struggles. Therefore, the use of the word or simple correction that offers no additional context should still be intentionally practiced, especially when the answers are more cut and dry. 

Some good examples of these would be anything that is related to the child’s safety. Crossing the road, holding hands in the parking lot, not touching hazardous items such as medicine, guns, knives, etc. These types of expectations are simply rules to keep the child safe and they must learn to adhere to them even without additional explanation. And in this case, if the child resists the direction, you can calmly remind them that we all must abide by rules for safety and this is one of the rules. Some things are just non-negotiable. 

There will be times when even negotiable things must be denied by the parent for one reason or another and these incidents must just be practiced on occasion, too. 

Maintaining a positive disciplinary position while also cultivating a healthy respect for rules and authority is not an easy task and it must be tailored to each individual child based on his or her temperament and responsiveness. But working through this dynamic early on will set the precedent for all behavior and expectation related incidents throughout the child’s adolescence and beyond. 

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