Respecting My Toddler’s “No”

If you’ve ever had a toddler, then you know the word “no.” Not only because as a parent you may find yourself saying it more in this season of parenthood than any other, and you most definitely are saying it more than you’d like, but it’s also a familiar word because of how often your toddler says it to you.

But have you ever stopped to think that maybe your toddler isn’t trying to be rude, defiant, or “terrible?” Maybe our toddlers really are trying to tell us “no.” The first time I considered this concept was when I read about it in relationship to elimination communication over at EC Simplified, but I immediately knew it could be applied to areas of life other than potty independence.

Toddlers are exploring their independence in many ways. They desire to stray from their parents, ever increasing their distance, and they like leading the way when walking about. They like to choose which books to read, which toys to play, and what to eat. Saying “no” is another way of demonstrating their independence. They have an opinion and the means to express it, and doing so demonstrates that they are people, separate from their parents.

When my toddler tells me “no,” it is usually just a knee-jerk response that, at first consideration, has little value to me. Sometimes he’ll say “no” while his actions indicate otherwise. For example, I’ll ask him if he wants a banana. He’ll say “no” and then go take a bite of his banana that’s sitting on the table. I know at times he just feels the need to say “no” to demonstrate some control and show me that he’s able to make decisions.

Other times, he truly does mean “no” and I try to respect his “no” while also showing him what “no” really means. I’ll ask him if he wants a hug or a kiss and he’ll often say “no.” If I try to force it on him, he gets very upset and starts shrieking and squirming to get away. Clearly when that happens, I am not respecting his “no.” Instead, I usually just say “okay” and leave him be. This teaches him that not only do I respect his “no,” but I trust his ability to make decisions, which also shows him what “no” truly means: no.

When my toddler tells me “no,” I try to think if what I’m asking him is something that is really important, or if it’s not such a big deal. The saying “choose your battles” comes to mind, and I prefer not to think of parenting as a war…but the concept remains. For example, when I tell him it’s time to get shoes on, and he tells me “no,” I stop to think, “Well, does it really matter if he has shoes on right now?” If we’re going in the car, it is more than fine if he’s barefoot there and we can just put shoes on when we arrive at our destination. Other times his “no” is a safety issue and I cannot let him choose to run into the busy street or play with Daddy’s drill.

In all (well, as often as I think of it) of the instances of his “no” responses, I try to take a moment to model a kinder way he could respond to me, rather than a simple (and often angry) “No!” Modeling kind, sensitive reactions to him will hopefully show him more compassionate ways that he can respond to others as well.


Adrienne is a first time mom to her mellow sweetie-pie, Burkley. Carrying her natural lifestyle over into her role of mother was a common-sense transition for this former elementary school teacher turned crunchy-mama. Research is her passion and her friends and family know that she is almost always ready with a stash of resources bookmarked to answer any of their natural parenting questions. While she admits to being on the computer more than she should be, she has been happily adjusting to her new life as a stay-at-home mom after moving back home to the Quad Cities (along the Mississippi River) from Chicago, by spending time with her family and newly found mom-friends. She is currently saving up money to become a certified postpartum doula. You can find Adrienne at Mommying My Way.

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