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How to Say No (Without Saying No)

Show and tell

Two-year-old Henry keeps poking his baby sister; his dad keeps telling him, "No, stop." Why won't he? "Some children can't stop what they're doing, even when you tell them to, because they don't know what to do instead," says parent educator Elizabeth Crary, author of Without Spanking or Spoiling. You may have to help them figure it out. Henry, for example, needs his dad to say, "Give Sarah a kiss," or some similar suggestion; then he'll have an image in his mind of something to do instead of poking. Younger toddlers might need you to actually help them do what you're asking of them as you make your request: If your child's hitting the cat, say, "Gentle," while you guide her hand in a stroking motion. Do this enough times, and she'll begin to figure it out for herself. Same goes for kids' unconscious and often excruciatingly irritating kicking and banging — on the table, the back of your seat, whatever. "Often, kids are not doing these things on purpose," says Lerner. "Some children are very active and feel best when their body parts are moving — they're doing it unconsciously." Help your child connect with what her body is doing. You could try a humorous approach: "Tell that foot to stop!" Or simply help her figure out what else she could do with the offending body part: Perhaps your daughter is willing to make quiet little circles with her foot. Since long phrases are hard for the very young to process, you could simply tell a small toddler, "Quiet foot," and place your hand on her foot to show her.

Sound like you mean it

"Kids initially learn the meaning of the word no largely from the tone of your voice when you say it," Lerner says. "So you can communicate what you need to say by using the same firm tone without the negative word." Reserve this strict tone for those times when your child needs to know not to mess with you. Likewise, you can also develop a "look" — or a penetrating glare — that immediately signifies to your child, "I don't like what you're doing, and you'd better stop."

Avoid being a party pooper by helping your child find an activity that's just as much fun as the one you're putting off-limits. Instead of freaking out about the mess your toddler's making when she dumps a box of cereal on the floor, distract her with something else that's just as entertaining for her, like a favorite toy. "If you stay connected with your child and the fun she's having, she'll be more apt to cooperate with you," says psychologist Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. And turning her attention — and your own — to something pleasurable will help you relax about the cleanup job ahead, as well as the mischief and mishaps yet to come.

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