What To Say Instead Of “NO!” – Six Ways To Gain Your Child’s Co-operation

November 5, 2011 · 35 comments

in Daily Life, Toddlers



Did you know? The average one year old hears the word “no” an unbelievable 400 times a day!

The problem with the word “No” is this: when it’s used too often, toddlers tend to tune it out after awhile.”No” alone doesn’t help your toddler learn what to do instead. Also, saying “No!” in a louder and louder voice (as you may be tempted to do when your toddler all but ignores you the first five times you say it), is not going to help him hear and heed your message any better. It may just lead to frustration for both of you. I advise saving “No” for emergencies, like when your child is in immediate danger. You can be sure your child will stop and notice when you use the word only in rare instances.

In “We Don’t Want To Spank,” Janet Lansbury emphasizes the importance of creating a safe play area within your home – a place just for your child, that has few restrictions, and is all about YES! The fact remains, when you are parenting a toddler, there are times when you will have to say “No.” So, what can you say instead, to get your point across and make it possible for your toddler to co-operate more readily with you?

Here are six ideas:

1) Rephrase your request in a positive way: Instead of  saying, “No, don’t run,”  try, “Please walk inside.”  Instead of  “No, don’t touch!” try, “You want to touch the lamp, but it might fall and break. Please just look with your eyes.” Instead of, “No, don’t touch the cat,” try, “Please remember to touch the cat gently.” (You may have to stay close to demonstrate gentle touches.)

2) Let your child know what he may do instead of  telling him what he can’t do: Instead of,  “No, you can’t have a cookie now,”  try saying, “You may have a cookie after dinner. If you are hungry now, you may have fruit or a piece of cheese.”  Instead of,  “No climbing on the furniture,” try, “The chair is for sitting in. If you’d like to climb, you may climb here (showing him). “Instead of , “No, we can’t go to the playground because it’s raining,” try saying, ” I know how much you love to play outside. We can go out as soon as the rain stops. Would you  like to read a story or build with your blocks while we wait for the rain to stop?” Instead of , “No! No throwing balls indoors,” try saying, “You can roll the ball indoors or take it outside and throw it. What’s your choice?”

3) Ask for your child’s help and thank him when he gets it right: Instead of, “No! I told you not to take your shoes off because we’re getting ready to go,”  try saying, “You need your shoes on to go outside. Please help me find them so we can get ready to go.” Instead of,  “No more playing for you. I’m not going to ask you to pick up your toys again,” try, “Thank you for helping me to clean up all the toys!”  Instead of,  “I said no yelling!” try lowering your own voice and saying, “Thank you for remembering to speak softly while your baby sister is sleeping.”

4) Explain the reason for your request, and  state what behavior you want to see instead: Instead of  saying, “No, don’t________ ,” try stating,  “I want you to_____________ because__________. “No, don’t throw the sand,” becomes, “I want you to keep the sand low in the sandbox, so it doesn’t get in anyone’s eyes, because that might hurt.” “No, don’t bang on the table,” becomes, “I want you to stop banging on the table because the sound it makes is loud, and it’s hurting my ears.”

5) Use “sportscasting”  to say what you see: Instead of saying, “No throwing food!” try saying, “You’re throwing your food. That tells me you’re done eating, so I am going to put the food away now.” Instead of “No splashing in the cat’s water bowl,” try saying, “You are playing in the cat’s water bowl, and splashing water all over the floor. That water is for the cat to drink. If you want to play in water, let’s fill the tub with water.”

6) If your child is hitting, kicking, or biting: Instead of saying, “No hitting/kicking/biting!” try saying, “Hitting/kicking/biting hurts! I won’t let you hit/kick/bite me. If you want to hit/kick/bite, you may hit the floor (or these pillows)/kick this ball/bite this teething ring.”

When you take the time to talk with your child in the respectful, positive ways above, explaining the reasons for your requests, offering choices, modeling the behavior that you want to teach, and bringing your child’s awareness to the impact his actions have on other people, you are including him in the learning process, and  guiding him to become self aware and self regulating in his behavior. This is the true goal of discipline; to help your child to become disciplined from within and learn to make good choices, instead of dependent on someone else to tell him what is right or wrong.

Tell me, have you found other ways to gain your toddler’s co-operation without resorting to saying no over and over? I’d love it if you’d share.





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Shelley Simpson November 6, 2011

I have spent most of the day watching video snippets from my classroom over the last week and a half. I am proud to say that I don’t think I heard the word ‘no’ once in all that footage. It does make a difference when you tell them what they can do rather than constantly yelling at them about they can’t do.

Lisa November 6, 2011

Dear Shelley,

This is wonderful news! Thanks for sharing. It’s so encouraging to know that there are teachers who really understand, talk to young children in respectful ways, and create environments that allow them to explore be successful, and feel good about themselves. When the environment and communication come together in this way, toddlers thrive, and show us what they’re capable of, and adults find they can really relax and enjoy the children more, as well. It’s a win- win situation for all!

Natasha November 6, 2011

Hi Lisa,
what a great post! I have been working on rephrasing and reshaping my ‘no’ communications for a couple of months now, how encouraging to read this! One thing I also do is use the word ‘stop’ instead of ‘no’ – when I see my son heading towards the cat food, when he bangs hard toys on the window pane etc. This gives me time to hold his hands and tell him why this isn’t the best thing to do right now before redirecting his attention. Your 6 Ideas are excellent, and I think too that getting into this habit as parents is a real activity in ‘language = experience alchemy’; helping them (and us) to focus on and realise the ‘Yes!’ in their lives as they grow.

Your posts and Janet Lansbury’s too have been invaluable and generate much thought and discussion with my hubby and my group of mum-friends. Many thanks and kind regards from Australia xo

Cathy Betty November 7, 2011

Thanks so much for this post, I think it’s so important for parents to understand how kids receive the information we give them.

Even more than just overuse – kids don’t respond to “Don’t” and “No” because they haven’t developed the understanding of what the opposite is yet.

As adults, we often assume that kids (and others in general) will know what we DO want them to do, by simply telling them what we don’t want.
To a toddler, the opposite of “Don’t touch” may as well be “Kiss an elephant”! They just don’t have an alternative.

This is why it’s so important to tell them what they should do.

With my 4yr old, I often use “Hands off”, or “Hands in pockets”. Knowing what she should do with her hands gives her the right focus, and the benefits of using this from very early on in her life have paid off massively.

Please keep sharing this message Lisa, I’d love to see it part of our regular education system and parenting education too.

Cathy (NZ)

Lisa November 10, 2011

Thanks Cathy! I will keep sharing, as it seems I’m compelled to! You are so right about not assuming that a young child will necessarily know or understand what to do instead, if we just stop at “No” or “Don’t.” Their experience in the world is limited, and not only that, they can’t always look ahead to see the consequences of their behavior- in fact, they may not realize that their behavior is even a problem! They are just learning about self and other, and about how to act in relationship to others, and they need lots of practice, good role models, and sometimes, reminders of what they can do instead!

Eva November 7, 2011

Hi, thanks for an important post.
It respects the fact that children actually are learning (and want to learn) how to behave right.

I too have found that just assuming that they want to do it right, and want to hear how to do this, tends to talk to that part of them that is like that.

(I still remember a neighbour remarking that “her kids are just plain and simple ‘good’, I dont know how she does it!” It works all right.

One thing I have been thinking about:
If the kid in question is anything like me, hearing “I want you to…” might bring out the little rebel. 😉

I personally prefer to use “This is the way we…handle sand, etc”.
I find it puts us on the same side, hoping it will help to identify more easily with the desired behaviour. Rather than just imposing my will.

Keep up the good work!


Lisa November 10, 2011

Hi Eva,
Thanks for commenting! With regard to using “we” when making requests of children, I used to do it too, as it was a way of speaking I learned when working in childcare centers. I realize the intention is to give the children the message, “We’re all in this together.” But then I studied with Magda Gerber, and she opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking about what she referred to as “teacherese.” Her thought was that it was disrespectful and slightly manipulative and dishonest to talk to young children using phrases like “We walk inside,” or “We use our quiet voices inside.” She referred to it as “The royal We.” Magda believed in being honest, clear, and direct when speaking with young children. When you think about it, “We handle the sand like this,” Is inaccurate, because while you may not fling the sand around the sandbox, obviously the child does ( or you wouldn’t be asking him not to). The child may not realize that flinging the sand could hurt someone else, or he might realize it, but still want to fling the sand because it’s just plain fun! You as the adult, realize the possible consequences of sand flinging, which is why you want the child to keep the sand low in the box, therefore, the statement, “I want you to…..” A conflict already exists between what the child is doing, and what you want the child to do, so why sugarcoat the request? (Maybe because we are uncomfortable with conflict? I don’t know.) I had never looked at it this way before meeting Magda, but her explanation made a lot of sense to me, and it was the beginning of the end of using “we” when making requests of children. What do you think?

Karen March 23, 2012


I am really glad to read Magda’s opinion about using “we” with children. When used within an adult context, it is referred to as “forced teaming”. It is extremely manipulative and I never, ever want my child to comply with someone using this tactic. It makes me cringe when I hear adults do this! I’m so glad you called attention to this. Thank you.

Joyce November 9, 2011

I wanted to be the perfect mom when I had my first and read all the books, I wasn’t going to make the mistakes my parents made with me. While I was not that perfect parent one area I was blessed in was my vocabulary. I had realized that little kids said no all the time because that is what they heard and after all they are little parrots. I had decided to rephrasing my words when my child indulged in negative behavior. i did not want my child to tell me no, so why would I tell my child no? If they went to touch something they were not supposed to, I would tell them we look with our eyes not with our hands or don’t touch. Even the words I choose to use with my children was not no, they never said them to me. I also always used manners with them when they complied with a request. It is too bad the parents who really need to read this most likely will not.

Lisa November 10, 2011

Dear Joyce,

Perfection is overrated :), but I do think we can always learn and grow! None of us are born knowing how to be good parents, teachers, or caregivers, and if we didn’t have good role models growing up, books and classes (and blogs), can help us learn new ways to be with, and talk to children. I’ve also sometimes wondered if the reason some children say no to adult requests so often is because they hear it so often, but I also believe that all children go through a period of time (usually when they are toddlers), when they are more likely to resist cooperating with adults and to say no frequently. I think this is normal, healthy, and necessary, as they begin to learn more and more about themselves and others, and assert their ideas and their will in relationship. But I have noticed that children who are treated and talked to in respectful ways often seem not to have to resist adults so forcefully. It is a truism that what we say and how we say it makes a big difference in the response we receive from children. My hope is that this blog will be a resource for all adults who might be interested in gentle, respectful ways to approach children.

maryam afnan November 9, 2011

Thank you so much for writing this wonderful article, and allowing us to share it.

I am an Instructor for Parent Effectiveness Training, and the alternatives you so skillfully explained above are wonderful examples of the skills we’ve come to use and love.

I always find a well worded reminder super powerful, so Thank You!

🙂 I am sharing it on my page, I hope you approve.


Lisa November 10, 2011

Hi Maryam,

Thanks for your kind note, and thank you too, for sharing my post!

Kaylia March 1, 2012

I loved this article…. it touched on a few things you had already shared with me… and I must admit that I “warn” my cat every time I go to pick her up. “Ok, Olive, I am going to pick you up and carry you to the bedroom now.”

Also, I totally remember that song from my youth!!!!! I also remember my mom banning it from the house because little 6 year old me would sing it nonstop……

rachel March 5, 2012

I am working on this very issue with my 2.5 year old. Most things have been pretty simple to redirect. Do you have any advice when it comes to hitting, or being in my 10 week old’s face? I’ve tried many redirections and responses and NOTHING is working. I know she’s testing a limit because this is one I don’t have a good alternative for. I had been putting her in “time out” for doing this but we stopped time outs because they weren’t working. any suggestions would be great as we are ALL getting frustrated. just an fyi she’s not doing these actions in an emotional state, she waits for me to be looking then watches for my response.


Lisa March 6, 2012

Hi Rachel,

It seems to me that your little girl is asking two questions when she waits for you to look and then hits her sister. The first is,”” Are you paying attention and will you stop me?” The second is, “Will you be angry with me/still love me if I hit the baby?” To me, her actions are a request for help dealing with, understanding, and learning to appropriately express big emotions. Time out doesn’t work (as you’ve discovered) because it is an emotional disconnect- you are sending her away to “think” about her actions, and get herself under control, but what she needs is more closeness and gentle guidance.

My advice: Stay very calm. Acknowledge what you think she might be feeling, or just what you see, “You want to hit the baby, but I won’t let you hurt her.” Don’t leave your daughter alone with, or within striking distance of the baby if at all possible. You can create a protected play space for both children using gating, because I know it’s not possible to hold the baby all the time. Reassure your little girl that you love her no matter what. Even though she looks like she is in control when she lashes out at her sibling, internally she isn’t in control. She wants you to stop her, AND she needs reassurance that she is not bad, wrong, or unloved for feeling angry, confused , or jealous. Her feelings need to be accepted and heard, but you must set a limit on hurtful behavior. If she does hit the baby (because you can’t prevent every instance), come close, hold her if she’ll let you, and say something like, ” You hit the baby, and she’s crying. Hitting hurts.” Then model gentleness, by soothing and comforting the baby while stroking or holding her “You are crying. It must have hurt when your sister hit you.” I would NOT ask your daughter to give a hug or say she’s sorry at this point, unless she offers.

If at all possible, take some time every day (even 15 minutes when the baby is sleeping) to spend special focused time only on her. Give her healthy ways to let out angry feelings: “If you are feeling like you want to hit, you may hit these pillows (or this doll).” Try reading story books together on the topics of siblings or feelings.(I have a made lists of some of my favorites on Amazon.)

Stay calm, be consistent, and keep modeling the gentle behavior you want to see, while accepting that your daughter may be feeling angry or jealous about having a new sibling. It takes time… You can also point out how much you like it when she is gentle with the baby, and how the baby responds, or include her in “caring” for the baby, by asking her to bring you the wipes, when you’re changing the baby, or if she’s into playing with dolls, she can change or bathe “her baby” when you are caring for her sibling. All of these things will go a long way towards helping your little girl come to terms with her feelings around being a big sister, and help her to understand while it’s OK to have and express intense emotions, it’s not OK to hurt someone else. Wishing you the best!

Thekla Richter March 23, 2012

I love these ideas. One of the things I do with my toddler and redirection is I ask him to redirect himself, once I’ve used a given redirection enough times that I’m confident he knows it. So, if he is doing things I’ve asked him not to in the kitchen, I used to say, “This is where LittleA can play” and point to his shelf/cabinet/table.” Now I ask him “Where can LittleA play?” and he shows me. Similar with biting, if he bites me I say, “Mama is not for biting. Show me what LittleA can bite.” And he’ll go and get an appropriate item and bite on it. He usually really takes pride in demonstrating that he knows what he’s supposed to do, and I think it offers both increased buy-in and a chance for him to practice thinking through his actions a bit.

rachel March 25, 2012

Thanks Lisa!
Your input gave me a fresher perspective. I have recently began parenting in a RIE style, though my daughter is now 2.5 and like I mentioned we also have a three month old. THere are many challenges in changing our own patterns of thinking and speaking, in addition, parenting a newborn with this “new to us” method on top of trying to correct some of the things we had been doing/saying/responding with to our toddler is making us feel a little crazy at times and questioning weather we did the right thing, responded appropriately, gave both kids the undivided attention they needed all while navigating daily routines (different for both kids) and feedings.

Lisa March 25, 2012

Dear Rachel,

You’re welcome! It’s wonderful that you are making positive changes in the way you parent and communicate with your children- it’s never too late! It’s not always easy to make changes, and parenting a toddler and a brand new baby can be stressful and tiring. You’re balancing a lot right now, and I want to encourage you to try to be as gentle and as patient with yourself and your process of growth as a parent as you are striving to be with your children. Your children don’t need you to be perfect parents! Remember to take moments to relax, to focus on what’s going well, to simply enjoy your children, and to give yourself a pat on the back for being a loving, committed parents. Sending lots of good wishes and thoughts.

Tricia March 31, 2012

My mom (a fabulous one, as well as grandma, preschool teacher, daycare director, etc.) has lots of goodies:
-quiet feet
-walking feet
-whisper feet/toes
(All appropriate when your goal is for them to make as little noise as possible or just keep them from running…it’s a real challenge to run quietly.)

And a couple I’ve learned along the way:
-Walk, please! (Most used in the hallways of co-op when the offender is an older child who wouldn’t appreciate the above ideas.)
-Let’s use science fingers. (When teaching kids to touch gently with just two fingers together. Our zoo has a FAB docent education program where I picked up this beauty!)
-Sign language (This still comes in handy with my girls (9 & 11) when they are across the room and I’m trying to suggest a different behavior.)

Laura Grace Weldon September 28, 2012

Wise and helpful. Thank you. Sharing!

les October 15, 2015

hi guys recently with my little man if I need.him to do something or help me I ask him if he would like to help daddy do grown up jobs.. he sorted a pile of junk mail and bills and letters just little jobs like that.. helps me take recycling out has his own wheelie bin lol because it’s just me and him I try get him involved a lot..

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