When my youngest was born, I thought I had hit the baby jackpot—she was so easy. Even as a newborn, she slept for long stretches. She was just as content on a blanket on the floor as she was nestled in my arms. Once, when she was just a few weeks old, she laid at my feet in a bassinet while I baked bagels from scratch. Homemade bagels. I couldn’t so much as pour myself a glass of water without also balancing my first baby in my arms.
So, you can imagine my surprise when this little one found her voice and, along with it, a favorite word: “no.” For months, the answer to every question was simply a dismissive and defiant “no.” It was a sharp departure from the agreeable, anything-goes baby we had grown accustomed to—and I couldn’t help but wonder, had we done something wrong?
To make sense of the situation, I called in a group of child development experts, who all assured me that this phase was a developmental leap I could find reassurance in.
When “No” Is a Good Thing
“Although hearing your child say ‘no’ is often frustrating, it is an important milestone. Saying ‘no’ is a healthy, normal, and very important part of your child building independence,” said Anahit Hovanisyan, MA, a child development specialist and early childhood educator.
At this stage, toddlers make important discoveries about themselves and the world around them. They learn that their thoughts and ideas can differ from their parents’, which may lead them to test boundaries in pursuit of a reaction.
“In essence, they are learning ‘separateness’ from their caregivers. Developmentally, young kids must first say ‘no’ before they can say ‘yes.’ And we will hear ‘no’ for quite a while,” said Emily Patillo, developmental therapist. “As challenging as it is to hear again and again, this phase signifies exciting growth in our child’s cognitive development.”
How to Deal
While I am relieved to hear that this phase is actually a sign of developmental growth, I still have to live with a small child regularly shouting “no” at me. How in the world do parents deal with that? Each time my little one responds in the negative, our daily routines grind to a halt. Whether we’re brushing teeth, getting dressed, or playing blocks, a frustrating power struggle ensues.
“One of my favorite ways to make daily routines go smoother is by using choices instead of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions,” said developmental therapist Kayla O’Neill. “Instead of saying something like, ‘It is time to get dressed,’ use a choice such as, ‘Do you want to put on your shirt or pants first?’” O’Neill said that what seems like an insignificant offering to us is actually an empowering moment for our youngest kids. Giving them choices throughout the day helps them feel as though they have some say and agency over what happens to them. And honestly, who wouldn’t appreciate that?
To help children find words other than “no,” Hovanisyan advised using their natural imitating skills to your advantage. Modeling, she explained, is the primary way that young kids learn. She suggested that parents comb through their own vocabulary and try to reframe any negative statements as positive ones. For example, you might replace a line such as “No, we can’t play dinosaurs right now,” with “First, we change your diaper, and then we can play dinosaurs.”
“Avoid power struggles and practice saying yes,” she said. “For instance, ‘Yes, you picked up all your toys, great job! Yes, you did it!’”