Your Toddler Says 'No'? It's Healthy

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 20, 2007

July 20, 2007 -- If your toddler's favorite word is "no!" and his default position is defiance, relax. New research suggests that willful behavior in very young children is both normal and a sign of a healthy parent-child relationship.

Based on controlled observations of mothers interacting with their 1- and 2-year-olds, researchers found that the children of mothers who had the most positive parenting skills often also displayed the most defiance when asked not to play with a particular toy or pick up toys after playtime.

Far from being abnormal or a reflection of poor parenting, defiant behavior among very young children appears to be a positive development, says researcher Theodore Dix, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin.

Defiance Normal for Toddlers

The finding comes as welcome news to Birmingham, Ala., mom Hannah Wolfson, whose son Alex is now 14 months old.

"There were instances really early on when we would say "no!" and he would just smile and keep doing what he was doing," she tells WebMD. "It's hard to tell how much he doesn't understand and how much he willfully ignores, but there is definitely a lot of willfulness."

In an effort to better understand the reactions of young children to parents' attempts to control and socialize them, Dix and colleagues videotaped 119 toddlers between the ages of 14 and 27 months interacting with their mothers.

The mothers were asked to have their children avoid a set of attractive toys and -- when playtime was over -- to get their children to help them put away the toys they had been allowed to use.

Based on the taped interactions, the researchers categorized the children's behaviors as either being defiant, ignoring maternal requests, or being willingly compliant with the requests.

The mothers' behavior toward their children during the playtime was also observed, and the mothers were asked to complete questionnaires designed to determine if they experienced symptoms of depression.

Being sensitive to their child's interests and supportive during playtime were among the positive parenting traits recorded by the researchers.

Pushing the Boundaries

Children of mothers with these traits and with few symptoms of depression were most likely to be defiant and least likely to ignore their mothers completely when a request was made.

In contrast, the children with mothers who reported symptoms of depression were more likely than other children to ignore requests and less likely to respond to requests with defiance.

Very young children of depressed moms may not completely trust their mothers' reactions, and they may learn to be overly passive in the face of challenges, the researchers suggest.

"These children may realize at a very early age that defiance isn't going to get them what they want," researcher Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, tells WebMD. "We know that depressed moms are more likely to use harsh punishments. They tend to have short fuses, and children may learn early on that defiance might get them hit or yelled at."

Conversely, it may be true that active resistance by toddlers who are fully engaged with their moms reflects a healthy confidence in their ability to control events, say Dix and Gershoff.

"This is the age when kids are pushing boundaries and that is a good thing," Gershoff says. "They are becoming their own person with their own wants and desires and ideas about how to do things."

  • Has your little angel discovered the word "No!"? Share with others in WebMD's Parenting community.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Dix, T. Child Development, July/August, 2007; online edition. Theodore Dix, PhD, associate professor of human development and family science, University of Texas at Austin. Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, research assistant professor, University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development. Hannah Wolfson, Birmingham, Ala.

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