“2 year-olds argue with their parents 20 to 25 times an hour.”– Study reported in Child Development Magazine

Between 11 and 15 months, we learn a powerful word: “No!”

It’s an inspiring discovery. We learn we are separate, autonomous beings with a will of our own who can impact what happens in the world. We revel in saying “No!” at every opportunity.

Our “No” is actually a big “YES!”

It’s an exuberant expression of our life force, our desire to find our place in the world.

Our parents are usually less than delighted. In fact, this developmental stage launches what’s often called the “terrible twos.” So our vocal expressions of primal life force aren’t usually affirmed. Do you remember your father or mother saying:

  • “I love your independence and autonomy!”
  • “I see that you’re learning to stand up for your own truth!”
  • “That strong inner compass will really help you throughout your life.”

More common messages are along the lines of:

  • “Don’t you dare talk back to me!”
  • “We’ll nip this defiance in the bud!”
  • “She has to learn respect and obedience!”

It’s understandable that we have a hard time when our child starts to express her own will. This is expressed perfectly in the internet meme that says

“Honey, when you grow up, I want you to be assertive, independent and strong willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable, and obedient.”

But some parents, instead of realizing that the child’s behavior is age-appropriate, are so upset by their child’s No! that they threaten punishment. There is almost always the withdrawal of love, as parents walk away when little ones tantrum. Unfortunately, emotional displays are the only way young children know to make their No heard.

Being needy and utterly dependent, we learn to hide our No’s. We begin to resort to whining, passive resistance, and manipulation.

By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve often lost touch with our own needs and even our own inner compass. We find ourselves saying Yes even when we don’t want to. We wish that we could feel good about sticking up for ourselves, about saying No sometimes.

So when we have a child of our own and he begins to assert his autonomy with the word NO, danger signs often flash inside us. We know that NO is dangerous, even if we don’t know why. We think we MUST teach him who’s in charge, right away. Defiance from our child, whether two or twelve, is met with an emotional slap-down as we put him in his place.

…defiance is a sign that your child is having a problem.

But defiance isn’t dangerous. Defiance is simply a sign that your child is having a problem. When we rush in with an iron fist, we don’t address the real issue.

Which might be that she feels you aren’t listening. Or that she’s really upset and needs your help to feel safe enough to cry. Or that she needs you to teach her how to express her needs and wants without attacking the other person.

Or maybe she’s just unwilling to let herself be intimidated by someone bigger and more powerful — which is actually a sign of integrity.

If she’s a tween or teen, that should make you rejoice. This is a child who thinks for herself!

Research shows that teens who are willing to stand up to their parents are also more likely to stand up to their peers.

After all, she could just lie to avoid a confrontation with you, which is what most teens do.

But you might also celebrate your child’s willingness to stand up for his own truth even if he’s a toddler. That’s when the inner compass starts to take shape. He’s telling you that he’s not willing to give up what’s important to him just because you’re using force or intimidation. But if you prioritize connection, even strong-willed kids will work with you. When the connection is strong enough, they’re willing to give up what they want to follow your lead.

So respecting your child’s No doesn’t mean you have to say yes to whatever he wants. Your child knows you’re in charge. This is about your child’s right to his feelings, even while you honor your responsibility to keep him safe and healthy, and to set necessary limits on behavior. @DrLauraMarkham (Click to Tweet!)

It IS possible to say “No” in a way that honors your own truth, while still staying in positive contact with your child. It IS possible to honor both your needs and your child’s age-appropriate need to assert himself. The secret?

1. Stop seeing your child’s NO as something you need to overcome.

Instead, see it as a YES offering in a duet dance of negotiation. Every dance is a chance to partner with your child, and that foundation of partnership will create more joy — not to mention better behavior–in the years ahead.

2. Don’t take it personally.

Your child is allowed to have a different view than yours. Her willingness to be different is a strength you want to nurture.

3. Listen to your child’s No.

“You’re saying NO, No bath! I hear you!”

Sometimes being heard is all our child needs. And the more your child feels seen, heard and acknowledged, the less he’ll need to get your attention by being contrary.

4. Listen to the YES behind the NO.

“You love playing with the toy horse; you don’t want to stop for a bath, right? That’s okay, you can keep right on playing with the horses… Let’s gallop them into the bathroom! They’re all dusty from riding all day!”

5. Sidestep the NO! by making your request an invitation to play.

The secret to smooth transitions is using yourself as the bridge, and no child can refuse your invitation to play.

“Climb on my back, Cowboy, we’re headed for the bathtub in the hills!”

6. Sidestep the NO! by giving your child a choice.

Win-win solutions mean you both get what you need.

“NO bath? Maybe you and the horses need to be hosed down in the kitchen sink?”

Who cares where he gets clean?

7. Sidestep the NO! by honoring his autonomy without giving up your request.

“NO Bath right now? Ok, Sweetie. We’ll wait five minutes. Then you may look at the plastic containers in the kitchen and be in charge of which ones you want to play with in the tub. Which one is best for pouring the water?”

Telling your child he “may” do something is magic. You won’t be able to restrain him from the bath.

8. Join the No.

In a joking voice:

“Whatever you do, DON’T get in the bathtub. NO, NO, NO, don’t turn on the water!! NO, NO, NO, don’t take off your clothes!!”

9. Honor the autonomy under the NO.

“Want to be in charge of turning on the water and deciding what toys go in the bath? Who should take your clothes off?”

10. Teach your child that he doesn’t need to attack you to express his needs — you will hear him and respond.

“You sound worried…Oh, you’re worried about that song about the child who goes down the bathtub drain? Don’t worry, you can be in charge of the plug. We won’t pull it out until you’re out of the tub, and then you can watch the water go down. You’ll see that only water can fit.”

11. Just say YES!

Match the exuberance of your YES! to your child’s No. Trust yourself to find a way to make both you and your child happy by responding to her No with all the Yes energy you can summon.

“YES, it’s time for your bath, and YES you can bring your horses, and YES you can ride on my back up the stairs on my back up the stairs, and YES I love you so much and YES, LET”S GO!”

Your child will match your generosity of spirit.

12. Honor the disappointment when you can’t agree with the No.

When you need to put your foot down, you can say your No with empathy and compassion for your child.

“I’m sorry, Sweetie, it’s bath time now. That makes you sad, I see. You wish you could play more. I bet when you grow up you’ll play all night, every night, won’t you?”

(That will get a YES!)

These examples are all from the toddler years, but you can of course adapt this for older kids. Keeping a sense of humor, acknowledging the other person’s perspective, and staying warmly connected ALWAYS helps you get past No with any human being. And if you start off raising your child this way, you’ll raise a tween and teen who can stand firm in his own integrity while he respects yours.

Remember that you can always find a way to meet both your needs. If you honor both your own NO and your child’s, you can always find a way to get past the word NO — to the YES! energy right behind it.

(Special thanks to Robert Gass, who inspired today’s message.)

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.


Image courtesy of Jenn Evelyn-Ann.