Disagreements are common, and are experienced by all parents in all times. But that doesn’t make them any less unpleasant.
And they are very unpleasant. A toddler knows no mild disappointment, has no ability to agree to disagree. My daughter digs her heels into the sidewalk to stop the stroller, or goes limp and drops to the ground, screaming with a tearful intensity, as if mourning something as dear to her as she is to me.
As a parent, I know I have to do something, but what? The obvious, and most consistently successful move (at least in the short term) is to give in. Just shell out the money for the ring pop or the plastic drugstore princess, or let the kid stay up another 20 minutes with the iPad, eating from a salad bowl of candy. The long-term consequences of this approach are real, but those can feel very far off after a long day.
But often, I do the dreaded part of parenting and play the ambassador of reality. This means saying no to her. And based on my daughter’s response, that sounds very different to her than it does to me.
Stalling is not an effective tool for a toddler. When I say, “We can go to the store in five minutes,” my daughter seems to hear, “We can never go to the store ever. In fact, everything you like in the store will be destroyed — forever — as soon as we pass by it.”
Reasonable and practical appeals are equally ineffective. “You’ve already had candy today, and more of it will make you feel ill,” comes across as “I not only fail to understand your body, but also your requirements for joy, and I will always do so, unless I am violently corrected.”
Explaining rarely works. “We don’t have time to go into the pharmacy to, as you put it, just look at toys. We are late to meet your grandparents,” sounds like “I am capriciously ignoring your extremely valid demands, as I will always do, and as the entire world will do, forever.”
No wonder she gets so upset. A toddler is only intermittently a rational person. And while the occasional lesson will sink in before things get out of hand, once the kicking and screaming begins, you’ve lost them.
So here’s what I learned: Don’t say no, at least not at first. Through error and trial, I’ve found two ways to do this without giving in: with an interesting story, or with a tangible alternative. The first one goes a little like this:
“Can we go into the store to get a toy?”
“Do you know what the toys are made out of?”
“No, plastic, actually. And do you know what plastic is made out of?”
“No, dinosaur bones. You see, a long time ago …”
And just like that, you and the dinosaurs have filibustered your way past the toy aisle. This isn’t going to work 100 percent of the time. But you can improve your success rate by keeping the narrative close to things the child likes, or things that are within their visual field.
Offering an alternative is probably more effective, but it depends on the kid and the situation. And it will cost you something.
“Can we go into the gas station to see what kind of toys they have there?”
“Did you know that the supermarket has Popsicles that you’re probably too little to eat?”
“I’m too little for them?”
“Probably. Why? Do you want to try one?”
The point is that, with a toddler, it doesn’t work to say no. Instead of saying “not this,” or “not that,” try proposing a vivid and desirable alternative, fictional or otherwise.
The time to win is later, when your child is calmer. Those little pockets of rational thought offer a good opportunity to revisit the most recent knock-down-drag-out brawl over a unicorn key chain or carnival balloon. You’re a grown-up. You’re responsible. You have good and valid reasons for denying your child when you say no. You can explain those reasons when the kid is calm, and lay the groundwork for the next time you have to say no. As they get older, children get better at understanding things in the heat of the moment. And then their disappointment won’t be accompanied by a sense of panic that the world is a senseless place that holds little regard for their feelings and desires.
For example, one quiet afternoon about a year ago, my daughter and I had a chance to talk about one of our recent fights. It went something like this.
“That’s why I said you couldn’t have the iridescent bunny rabbit. And I’m the boss,” I said.
“But one day, will I be the boss?” she asked.
“Maybe, probably. In a long time, if you act right.”
“Whoa,” she said, and paused, a new possibility opening in her mind.
The not-saying-no approach has recently become something I lean on less. My little girl is 4 now. She’s harder to distract, and more open to logic and other forms of persuasion. She’s gotten wiser to my tricks and picked up a few of her own. And so this little arms race goes on and on.
The most important thing I’ve learned from arguing with her during her toddler-hood is this: In many ways what a toddler wants isn’t that different from what an older child or even an adult wants. It’s not airtight reasoning or criticism but vivid alternatives that most often triumph. In many ways, it seems, we’re all like toddlers: Much less interested in winning the argument than in having somewhere interesting to go.