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Beyond "No"

A homework assignment for anyone with a toddler: As you go through the day, count the number of times you say no to your child. If you're like me (15-plus), it's way more often than you'd prefer. Why are toddlers such magnets for trouble? "They're at an inquisitive phase  -- not to mention newly mobile," points out Marilyn Gootman, author of The Loving Parents' Guide to Discipline and a mom of three. The result: Anything those dimpled arms can reach  -- the CD player, Mom's lipstick stash  -- is fair game. Toddlers are also struggling to establish their independence, so they test limits by heading toward forbidden objects and activities.

While you need to keep your little rascal safe, too many "no's" can backfire. "It's like crying wolf. If you say it too often, children will tune it out," says Gootman. That means they may not listen when it really counts, such as when they're about to dart into the street. Since toddlers are expert mimics, you'll also be dismayed to find that the more you say no, the more they'll say it back to you. Some will react to flat-out refusals by throwing tantrums, and if you're constantly telling your kids what not to do, you risk putting a negative spin on the relationship.

You can't forgo discipline altogether, though. If you don't establish rules, your kids will be ill-mannered  -- and no fun to be around. It'll also chip away at their confidence. "Kids grow up to be more secure if they know someone cares enough to set limits. Otherwise, the world seems scary and chaotic," says Gootman. To help you get tough  -- without turning tyrannical  -- clue in to these reality-tested, "no"-free tactics.

How To Win The "No" Wars

Disaster-proof your house. Stash Great-Grandma's vase and the marble chess set. Toddlers like to explore, and they need to be able to get into things. Sometimes this means allowing them easier access. "When my daughter was eighteen months, she'd climb the shelves in the pantry to get to the paper towel rolls. We'd put them higher and she'd just climb right up! Finally, we set them on the floor so she could stack and play with them without hurting herself," recalls Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., a pediatrician at North Shore Children's Hospital, in Salem, Massachusetts, and a mother of two.

Distract/redirect. Toddlers have an extremely short attention span  -- so use it to your advantage. It worked like a charm for Betsy Stoeber of South Orange, New Jersey, who could stop almost any unruly behavior by excitedly showing her son, Karsten, what she calls a "wow-whee!" item. "I would gasp and say, 'Look over there!' and smile really big and run over to some box with Buzz Lightyear on it or point to it and put it in his hands. That would get the focus away from whatever was causing the disturbance." Karsten, she adds, would usually fall for it. "I think if you yell 'No, put that down!' it just directs that energy into his being upset. If you focus that energy on something else, everyone leaves happy." In order for this to work, you need to know your child's temperament  -- a happy child is less likely to bristle when you direct him away from an activity. If he's grouchy in the afternoon, schedule potentially troublesome trips  -- to the mall or the grocery store  -- for the morning.

Substitute. Another simple solution is to replace an unacceptable toy/activity with a similar one. When your 2-year-old reaches for a hammer, gently take it away and guide him toward his toy toolbox. This allows him to continue whacking away without injuring himself.

Explain your position. When you're telling your child what to do, mention why she should listen. Ivor Horn of Alexandria, Virginia, keeps her kids from dangerous objects by telling her 3-year-old daughter, Sydney, and her 15-month-old son, Christian, that it's "not for you." She follows that up with a simple explanation: "If it's something that's going to be dangerous, we say, 'That's going to be an owie,' or if it's hot, we say, 'It's hot.' They know that hot is not something they want to touch." Giving explanations makes demands seem reasonable and encourages kids to internalize the rules. If they understand the consequences, they may think twice before doing it again  -- whether or not you're watching.

Don't overexplain. Toddlers can't grasp such complicated concepts as fairness, so keep solutions simple. If your son snatches his playmate's prized dump truck, return the toy and hand him a fire engine instead. "If you start talking about sharing, he'll look at you like you have two heads," says Dr. O'Keeffe.

Say yes...but. When Ann Lindblad's three boys were toddlers, the Rutland, Massachusetts, mom said yes to their requests  -- within reason. "I valued their opinions," she says. "If they asked to eat dessert before dinner was served, I'd say, 'That sounds like fun. We can't today, but let's plan a backward day on Saturday,'" she recalls.

Couch your request in the positive. Tell your child what you want him to do, not what you don't want him to do. "I was at a party where a two-year-old was shooting water in his mom's face with a squirt gun. She said no, but he didn't listen," says Jody Johnston Pawel, author of The Parent's Toolshop. She could have told him to "squirt the grass and help it grow."

Be a goofball. Your child's angling to eat a bunch of Oreos? Instead of saying "No! That's not healthy," try being silly: Laughingly ask him, "Wouldn't it be great if cookies were as good for you as broccoli?" He'll know you heard him, but the limits are clear.

Ignore. Sometimes, the less said the better. Alec Singer of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, says his 2-year-old son, Theron, used to bang his head on the floor to get attention. "Saying no encouraged the behavior," he says. "So once we determined that he wasn't doing any physical harm, we ignored it, and he stopped."

Recognize feelings. It's easier for kids to hear "I know you really wanted the stuffed dog, but you have six already" than a flat-out rejection. They may not be happy, but if they think you understand their disappointment, they'll have an easier time accepting your decision.

Give in  -- sometimes. Trying to discipline (or outwit) a toddler is exhausting. So give yourself a break  -- let her have her way on occasion. Who cares if your child wears a Batman costume to the grocery store? See the humor in it and you'll both have more fun.

  Mary Garner Ganske, a mom of two, writes frequently for Parenting. She lives in Ohio.

4 Strategies For Getting Your Way

"No" is best saved for times when your child is in danger  -- she's gotten hold of a kitchen knife or wandered into a parking lot. For less dire situations:

• Perfect "the look." Often, kids stare right at you when they're about to do something wrong, as if they're daring you to stop them. Flashing a warning look (though not one that's mean or threatening) can often register more quickly than words, says Vicki Folds, vice president of education for Tutor Time Learning Systems, in Boca Raton, FL.

• Develop a "stop" sound  -- "tsk tsk," a whistle, "uh uh." It's amazing how quickly they'll add it to their burgeoning vocabulary.

• Say "bye-bye" or "night-night" to things you want them to put away: for example, "bye-bye to the glue stick" or "night-night to the tape player." It can smooth the transition from one activity to another.

• Keep them in the loop. Better to say "I'm going to change your diaper" than to grab your toddler and wrestle her onto the changing table. If she knows what's coming, she feels more in control and is less likely to resist.