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Turning “No” to “Yes:” Encouraging More Cooperation from your Toddler (Part 2)

Part 2: 10 Tips for Encouraging Toddlers to Say "YES!"

Does your toddler say “NO!” all the time? Does he or she refuse to cooperate with you—fighting nappy changes, car seats, going to bed, and more? In our last blog post in this 2-part series we discussed some of the reasons WHY toddlers tend to be so negative and uncooperative. In this post, we will offer 10 tips for turning ‘no” to “yes and encouraging more cooperation from your toddler.

How to Turn your Toddler's "No!" to "Yes!"

1. Have realistic expectations. Toddlers are not mini-adults: they have immature cognitive abilities and emotional control and are naturally egocentric. (See the previous post for more on this.) If we expect them to act rationally and sensibly, we will be disappointed and we will likely make them more frustrated and less cooperative. Secondly, remember that each child is unique so there is no point in comparing them with your friend’s kids or even your other kids. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy!” Finally, toddlers will have good days and bad days (or weeks). Back off during negative phases—these are normal and won’t last forever.

2. Use rhythm (or routine) to help a toddler know what is coming next. Design a rhythm that meets your toddler’s needs as well as yours.

In ToddlerCalm we talk about rhythm rather than routine, because it doesn’t have to be tied to the clock to work. But regardless of what you call it, rhythm can be very comforting for toddlers and will make life easier for you too. When kids know that tooth brushing comes after bath and is followed by a cuddle and a book, it can be easier for them to go with the flow rather than refuse to cooperate. Have agreed upon “family rules” that are age-appropriate and simple to comply with (for example, we always brush our teeth before bed and we always wash our hands before eating.) Use sensory cues to help your nonverbal toddler know what is coming next (when the dishes come out it is time to eat, or when the bath smells like lavender it is almost time to sleep).

Also, plan your day to avoid conflict—prevent hunger and tiredness (the root of many toddler melt-downs) with regular, small, healthy meals and snacks and regular sleeps. Get plenty of fresh air and exercise each day to keep everyone’s mood positive and schedule in enough “just being” time and some flexibility in your agenda so you are not always rushing your child from one activity to another. Toddlers do not respond well to being rushed and the more stressed you are, the more likely they are to balk at your requests.

3. Offer choices instead of asking yes/no questions or giving commands. This simple technique works great with toddlers: you are more likely to get cooperation when you give the toddler a sense of control and an opportunity to practice independence and to express her emerging opinions and unique individuality. Limit it to 2 choices for young toddlers, 3-4 for preschoolers. For example, “Do you want to wear your green trousers or your purple skirt?” “What do you want to do first, put on your pajamas or brush your teeth?” “Do you want to run to the door or hop like a bunny?” “Would you like to walk to bed yourself or ride piggy back on Daddy?” If your toddler comes up with a 3rd, unacceptable option you say, “That wasn’t one of the choices.” If your toddler refuses to choose, you say, “I see you want mama to choose” and then do it.

4. Make it fun. Research shows that children laugh about 300 times a day but adults laugh less than 15 times a day. By channeling your fun and playful self, you can get cooperation AND everyone ends up in a good mood. Remember, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! (This is also how you can become the parent that your grown kids will look back on with great big smiles.) Here are just a few ideas;

  • Let your silly or funny side come out—make it so fun that the toddler can’t resist doing what you want! For example, you can pretend you don’t know how to do it (put the toddler’s sock on their hand or try to put it on your own foot). Pretend you don’t think the toddler is big enough to do it (“Oh, you are much too small to tidy up your toys. Only a big kid can help mama tidy up.”) If a child is acting grumpy and negative pretend that “No smiling is allowed in this house!” If all else fails, use a funny voice or

accent or put on a funny face or walk—no toddler will be able to resist it!

  • Play Cooperation games-use a natural inclination to be competitive to get more cooperation (some kids may find the competition stressful so go by your child) “I bet I can pick up all the red cars before you pick up all the blue cars!” “I’m going to put the timer on and see if you can put your pajamas on before it rings.” “I’m so fast, I’m a pony, I bet you can’t catch me!”

  • Make it talk—what is unacceptable coming from you, can be irresistible coming from a funny talking object. If your toddler runs away from nappy changes, make the nappy into a puppet that talks to the child. Your hand is a plaything that is always available and can be endlessly entertaining (“Mr. Hand wants to wipe your face or watch how you wash your hands.”) Toddlers will talk right back to these silly objects, so it’s great for language development as well!

  • Engage their imagination—encourage cooperation and stimulate the brain at the same time. Find an imaginary trail of caterpillars on the way to nursery, pretend that a bunny is sneaking all the vegetables from the plate when you turn your back, make believe that the vitamins give super powers, see if there is a mouse in the child’s mouth while brushing teeth, ride the Potty Train to the toilet (with sound effects), pretend the toys come alive and dance to the toy box, etc.

  • Sing a song—this can be fun, positive, good for language development, and it quickly becomes a routine to do what needs to be done every time you sing that particular song. Nursery schools use this technique every day. Some common examples include; “Tidy up time,” “This is the way we wash our hands,” “Brush your teeth in circles,” etc. Singing in the car is the only way I know to drive with a bored toddler.

  • Play a word game—it can become a fun routine or a stimulating diversion during boring, repetitive tasks like nappy changes, getting dressed, etc. You stimulate language and vocabulary at the same time! For example: “Where is your nose?” “What does the cow say?” “Where do your trousers go?” Or just recite nursery rhymes, simple poems, tongue-twisters, etc.

  • Tell a story—stimulate the brain while you encourage cooperation. Read a story, or even better, make up a story about a puppy who goes to the dentist and lets the dentist count his teeth, a dinosaur who gets an injection and cries about it but is okay in the end, a penguin’s first day at nursery, etc. Alternatively, tell a true story about your child—kids LOVE to hear about themselves. You can even make a picture book about your child using photographs or drawings (example: Luca learns to use the potty, or Sara is gentle with the dog) Let your older toddler tell the story or fill in the words and it will become a keepsake for ever.

5. Help to ease transitions. Having to stop doing something fun in order to do something not fun (such as get in the car or get ready for bed) can be very difficult transitions for kids to deal with. Ease the transition to help prevent the usual "NO!" from your toddler:

  • 5-3-1 warnings: Let kids know that in 5 minutes something is going to happen, then in 3 minutes, and then in 1 minute so they are prepared, have time to finish what they are doing, and are less likely to fight the transition.

  • Acknowledge and verbalize your child’s feelings about ending the activity. “I know you are sad about leaving, I am too,” or I know you would like to have one more turn on the slide, but it is time to go.”

  • Say “bye-bye” to what you are asking them to stop doing: “I see you are having a great time with that toy car. Let’s say “bye-bye” to the car, give it a hug and a kiss, and we will play with it again next time. “ Or “say goodbye to the pile of sand, and thank you for letting us dig in it!”

6. Change how you communicate. We are verbal beings but toddlers are not. Their vocabulary is limited and their ability to express complex thoughts and feelings is almost nonexistent. But we can find other ways to improve communication.

  • Teach baby sign language to help your toddler communicate and reduce frustration.

  • Get down and talk eye-to-eye: rather than yelling commands across the room or talking down at your child from a great height.

  • Make it brief, make it clear: be realistic about what your child can understand.

  • Think it/say it/mean it/do it: We often say we are going right this minute and then get distracted with several things we forgot to do, and then don’t actually go out the door. This can be confusing and frustrating. When you say you are doing something, do it

  • Stop Saying “NO” so much yourself. One reason toddlers say it so much is because we say it so much. They will mimic and repeat whatever you say and do, so if you want them to say “yes,” you need to say “yes.” For example: childproof your home so your child lives in a “yes” space rather than a “no” space. When you need to stop some behavior, use warning hand signals, sounds or facial expressions rather than always saying “no.” Whenever possible use positive language rather than negative: Rather than “Don’t hit your friend!” Say “Touch nicely” or “Use gentle hands.” Rather than, “No, you can’t have a cookie! “ Say “You can have a banana or an apple.” Rather than, “No, you can’t go outside” say “Yes, we can go out after lunch.” Rather than, “No, don’t touch! Say “Not for baby.” You can also experiment with “When/Then,” “Now/later,” “You may/after you” which are not only more positive, but also give control back to the child. For example: “When you put your pajamas on, then we can read a story,” “Get in your car seat now and then you can pretend to drive the car later.” “You may play outside after you help me tidy up the toys.”

7. Use distraction and redirection to prevent or end battles. Get creative: look for interesting things and point them out: “Bus! Metro train!” (While driving). Provide interesting kitchen implements and a toddler-safe cupboard of ever-changing objects for amusement during food preparation. Let your toddler play with a flashlight or other fascinating object (only) during nappy changes. Bring interesting toys or coloring along for any boring waits at doctor offices, restaurants, while running errands or long trips/plane rides. Give tasks at the store or during other boring activities “Can you find the apples and help me put them in a bag?” “Can you throw out the used nappy?” And last but not least, change negative moods with an impromptu snuggle, book, or a run around outside.

8. Offer a compromise or a suitable alternative. Toddlers want what they want, but often they can be swayed if you offer something in return. “Don’t want to get out of the bath? You can play until the water goes down.” “We can’t have a cookie while shopping but you can have an apple or a bread roll.” “You can’t throw my iphone, but you can throw this ball, or this pretend iphone.”

9. Be the Behavior You Want to See. Toddlers mimic and copy everything we do, so we can model cooperation. Be flexible and cooperative yourself sometimes. Engage in child-led play for a short time every day, during which your child is entirely in control and you do whatever he or she says, or you simply observe and “narrate” what they are doing.

10. Maintain your Perspective and Sense of Humor. Choose your battles—don’t let the grind of parenting make you lose sight of the joy of being with your child. Love your child unconditionally and connect deeply—toddlers will always benefit from more quality time and attention from you. The more connected and attached they feel, the more they will WANT to cooperate and maintain that connection.

None of this is possible, of course, if you don’t take care of yourself. The most important parenting strategy is making time to meet your own needs for sleep, nutritious food, exercise and stress-relieving activities, whatever they may be. Recharge your own batteries so you can be the parent your child needs you to be. Be aware of your triggers—those times when you will not be able to stay patient and loving—and try to avoid them or prevent them. Have “yes” days now and then when you set your mind to saying “yes” to just about anything and everything. Both of you will be happy to take a holiday from all the “no’s” and it will create good-will to help you get cooperation on all the other days.

Sources: Sarah Ockwell-Smith, ToddlerCalm, 2013; Elizabeth Pantley, The No Cry Discipline Solution, 2007, Sears and Sears, The Discipline Book, 1995,

If you would like to learn more about this approach to parenting toddlers, consider taking a ToddlerCalm workshop or 4 week class for parents of 1-4 year olds. Read more about them here.

What tips do you have for encouraging toddlers to cooperate and turn "no" to "yes?" I'd love to hear what has worked for you!

Amy x

Amy Vogelaar is a mother of two school-aged girls and is a licensed ToddlerCalm teacher and consultant. She teaches ToddlerCalm workshops and classes which cover how to handle tantrums, picky eating, sleep problems and more. Read more about ToddlerCalm here.

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