“No” is a natural part of language development and children use “no” to practice negation and discover their own opinions. Blah, Blah, effing Blah. None of this matters when you’ve heard the word for the thousandth time in a two-hour period.
Go ahead. Vent a little. Let’s talk about that time your kid refused to get in the elevator, so you had to carry his heavy butt up eight flights of stairs because the bastard wouldn’t walk either. Or that time your kid crawled under the table and refused to blow out her damned Minnie Mouse birthday candle. You know, the one you went to five different stores to find. Or the week that your kid wouldn’t use the toilet even though she’d already been potty trained for a year, and you spent full afternoons unloading giant turds from her Barbie underpants and then dealing with the fits that ensued when you chucked the unsalvageable ones into the trash can. Then there’s the food thing. Just eat the effing broccoli already you little jerk face.
Okay. Now let’s go back to that child-development thought. I’ve used this rational many times when referring to kids saying “no” on repeat: They are supposed to refuse. It’s normal. Part of this is total truth, but there’s more underneath. There’s always more underneath.
Language development only explains part of why little kids are such oppositional lunatics. The rest lies in a desire for control. Picture this for a second: You live in a world ruled by giants who have regulations and boundaries around your every move. They tell you when, where, and how to do even the most basic things, like eat, sleep, and take a pee.
You might feel a bit constrained. You might refuse to do what they tell you. You might even gather a group of fellow non-giants and revolt. Not because it’s developmentally appropriate, and not because you are practicing negation, but because you want to be free to make your own choices. The “No!” really means, “Give me freedom.”
If your child is refusing constantly to the point where you want to scream, you may find relief in letting go of the reins. Unfortunately our natural inclination is to do the exact opposite by cracking down, pushing harder, and giving punishments. This rarely works. In fact, cracking down just increases the behaviors that drive us the nuttiest and causes our children the most stress.
When children feel a severe lack of control they will often refuse to do the things they know other people can’t force them to do, like sleep, eat, and crap. Children will have more potty accidents, refuse to use the toilet, or avoid potty training. They will limit the foods they eat and drink, and they may even alter their sleeping patterns, all in an attempt to gain control.
You can make things easier on yourself and your children by allowing them to make choices across daily activities. This simple act provides children with an element of control and helps them to feel like they are taking the lead in their own lives. Examples include allowing them to pick their own clothing (even if it doesn’t match), making the decision to brush their teeth before or after getting dressed, or letting them help plan the dinner menu.
If the refusals have already crept into the realm of basic needs you can also provide choices here too. A child can decide which bathroom she uses, if she puts one or two carrots on her plate at dinner time, and whether she sleeps with the door open or closed or with the nightlight on or off.
You’ll need to provide some boundaries around the choices at first so you don’t end up in an argument about why you aren’t making an ice cream sundae for breakfast, but eventually kids learn to build their own boundaries and you can leave their choices more open-ended.
Giving children choices will not only help them feel more in control, it will also demonstrate that their opinions matter to you and your family. You will help them build communication, negotiation, and problem solving skills as well as give them a sense of autonomy in a scary and often stifling world.