6 strategies to get your toddler to do what you want (without using the N-word)

Has your 2 year old ever looked at you, presumably understood that she’s not allowed to press the buttons on the television remote control, smiled sweetly and pressed them anyway?

No, she’s not the evil conniver Aunt Sally makes her out to be. She’s a toddler. And with toddlerhood come the initiative, curiosity and autonomy that often has parents of toddlers at the brink of despair.

Most children under the age of 3 simply don’t understand the meaning of “no” the way parents think they should.

“A complete understanding of the word may not come until age 4 or older,” says Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline: The First Three Years.

‘No’ is an abstract concept; children develop their knowledge and understanding of it gradually.

This doesn’t mean toddlers should have free rein to do anything they want. But it may explain why “no” often doesn’t work for parents of the 2- to 4-year-old crowd.

So, what can parents do when their children are torn between obeying or following their own biological urge to explore the world?

Below are six positive parenting strategies to help avoid the word “no,” and still get your toddler to do what you want.

Catch Them Being Good

Focus on the positive. It’s easy to overlook the good stuff during this time of constant temper tantrums and seemingly deliberate misbehaviors, but offering praise to a toddler is a sensible approach.

If your child completes a task such as putting her toys in the toy box, catch her at it.

Notice the action you want to her to emulate, and make a fuss over it with positive feedback.

Compliment the behavior.

Over time, you can break the cycle of negative attention and shift the focus onto good behavior. Lots of smiles, hugs and kind words will eventually encourage a repeat performance.

Turn the Other Cheek

Some toddlers view negative attention as better than none at all and will continue a bad behavior to get a reaction — any reaction.

If the behavior is not dangerous or destructive, try to ignore it. When you do, your toddler will usually try something else to gain your attention, and may move on to a new more appropriate behavior.

Caution: sometimes ignoring the behavior will increase it temporarily. Be patient.

Pick Your Battles

We often hear this advice for parents of adolescents. But choosing your battles wisely is an effective game plan with toddlers as well. If your child is spending too much of her day in time-out for misbehavior, a new approach is probably warranted. Pick a few of the “worst crimes” to work on.

The most offensive, dangerous, damaging or inappropriate behaviors are the ones you’ll want to nip. Concentrate on those few, and be consistent in their punishment. As each misdeed is corrected, you can move on to the next, working your way through a misbehavior checklist, one crime at a time.

Show or Tell

Redirect the focus of bad behavior. This approach is a simple one that really works. Quietly lead the child away and show her a new, more appropriate activity.

Diverting her attention often avoids a temper tantrum or battle. And you never even have to say the word “no.”

Show or tell a child what she can do instead of punishing for what she can’t. This tactic works especially well with pre-verbal children, whose attention spans are not as developed.

Consistency is the Key

Every time your child exhibits the inappropriate behavior you’ve decided to correct, you must reply with the same reactionary response.

Whether you remove the child from the situation, use a time out, redirect her attention or use another method, you need to be consistent with the consequences each and every time.

Toddlers come to understand and even predict what your response will be and will eventually give up the offending behavior. Again, patience is a good virtue, as this may take some time.

Supervision is Required

Parents can “teach” a young child not to run into the street, but those same parents would never allow their child to play unsupervised near a busy roadway.


“Simply because they cannot trust that the child has really “learned” the lesson and has enough self-discipline and responsibility not to run into the street,” says Nelsen.

Yet the same parents often expect children to “listen” when they are told “no” and can’t comprehend why their children disobey the second they aren’t being watched.

Simply said — toddlers require supervision.

Remember, you may have to repeat these strategies over and over before you get the results you want. But your attitude and actions will determine whether you create a battleground or a loving atmosphere for your toddler to explore and develop. Less use of the word “no” may be just the tactic your toddler needs.

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