Saying No to No

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter, who is 3 ½, is still in her “NO!” phase. Anything I tell her to do, she categorically refuses. I was prepared for the “terrible two’s”, but thought she would have outgrown them by now. Is there anything I can do?

A: No, no, no! Just kidding. There are plenty of things you can do to help. But before we get to them, let’s try to figure out why your daughter has become so attached to the N word.
To start with, she’s still trying to establish her independence. And one of the best ways (at least in her mind) is to let you know who’s in charge. (Fair warning: This exact, nerve-wracking dynamic will crop up again when she hits her teen years.)

It’s also possible that her knee-jerk negativity is part of her temperament. A child who doesn’t react well to change or needs extra time to warm up to new situations may throw out a No as a way of maintaining the status quo. Third, your daughter may be confused or might not understand what you’re asking/telling her to do. More on that in a minute.
Whatever the reason(s), here are some approaches that should help.

  • Make sure she knows the difference between negotiable and non-negotiable rules. Health and safety issues (for example, always wearing a helmet when riding your bike or holding your hand when crossing the street) are not; less important things (like what color the helmet is or whether she holds your right or left hand) are.
  • Don’t pull rank. Telling her, “I’m big, you’re little, so my way goes,” won’t produce the results you’re looking for.
  • Stay away from Yes/No questions. Instead of, “Please put your jacket on,” try, “Do you want to wear the red jacket or the blue one?” This may not seem important, but making simple decisions like these now is a prerequisite for making bigger—and more important—ones later (like, “Should I get into a car with a friend who’s been drinking?”)Every child, regardless of age, needs a certain amount of independence in order to develop the confidence necessary for decision-making.
  • Be logical. If your child says No when you tell her to put on her helmet, instead of repeating your demand, try something like, “Oh, I see that you don’t really want to ride your bike today.”
  • Wait a minute and ask again—gently. No doesn’t always mean No. Sometimes it means, “Pay more attention to me.”
  • One thing at a time. If someone told you to put down your markers, stop playing with your toys, clean up the living room, go upstairs, wash your hands, come back down, and eat dinner, you’d probably say No too.
  • Eye contact. It’s easier for her to refuse if she’s not looking at you than if she is.
  • Do a No audit. We all use No a lot more often than Yes. Could you reasonably switch some of those No’s to Yeses—or at least to short explanations (helmets are important because they protect our heads in case we fall off our bikes)? And be sure to reward good behavior. Never pass up an opportunity to give your daughter a high five.
  • Be a good model. You can’t expect your child to do things you don’t.

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Making the Terrible Twos a Little Less Terrible

Dear Mr. Dad: I love spending quality time with my two-year-old, but occasionally he throws a tantrum that seems to come right out of the blue. It embarrasses me in public and frustrates me at home. How should I respond to his unreasonable anger?

A: Welcome to the wonderful world of toddlers (sometimes known as the “terrible twos”), a place where emotions run hot, and logic and reason are in short supply. The good news is that occasional tantrums are fairly normal at this age. The not-so-good news is that self-control is a skill that’s learned gradually, over a pretty long time, so you’ll need all the patience you can muster.
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