Teaching Toddlers the Difference Between Yes & No

By Tamara Christine Van Hooser
Positive parent-child relationships develop in everyday activities that build social skills.
Positive parent-child relationships develop in everyday activities that build social skills.

At some point around your little angel's second birthday, the word "No!" seems to become his favorite word. You feel like you are in a constant battle with a strong-willed toddler, and that is because you really are engaged in that battle. However, your little one’s vocabulary skills do not always match his ability to communicate his ideas, explains the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. As he tests his language, he may not have a firm grip on real world outcomes to the words Yes and No. With compassion, firm limits and consistency, you can equip yourself with an arsenal of tools to protect your parent-child relationship and to teach your toddler the difference between Yes and No.

Take Action

Your toddler's thinking skills are still "under construction" so she has difficulty understanding how her actions affect others, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Consistent action-oriented consequences help her consider this cause-and-effect relationship. When your child continues to play with her food or throw it around after you have told her No, take immediate action instead of trying to reason with her. The Love and Logic Institute recommends that you sing "Uh-oh, that's so sad" as you gently, but firmly declare that mealtime is over and then remove the food or child from the table. On the other hand, if your youngster politely asks for a cookie, say, “I like to say Yes to polite children!" as you hand over the desired treat with hugs and kisses.

Manageable Choices

Toddlers lack the wisdom to tell the difference between situations where you can allow choice and those in which you must restrict his freedom because you can see dangers that he cannot. When giving choices, only give options with which you can live and keep them simple. For example, if you ask him if he wants an apple or orange for a snack and he says No, he may be unsure of how to say No to the apple but Yes to the orange. Instead, offer him one at a time and let him answer Yes or No before you offer another choice.

Behavioral Choices

Choices can also help you resolve misbehavior issues quickly. If your child is refusing to leave the playground, say, “You can leave under your power or my power." She then has about 10 seconds to decide to change her No to Yes and walk away with you before you calmly say, "OK, I get to choose. Let's go." At the same time, pick her up and walk away firmly regardless of her reaction. Your decisive action teaches your toddler that saying No to a direct parental request results in lost independence, whereas saying Yes allows her to retain independence and bodily control. She is learning to stop and think about how her decision to say Yes or No will affect her life.


Self-control won’t happen immediately, but over time. “If we consistently give louder and more intense reactions to misbehavior than we do compliance, children will go for the 'fireworks' every time," advises the University of Alabama Parenting Assistance Line. “But they continue that your toddler learns self-control when you "starve misbehavior by not feeding it with [your] energy." In other words, when you practice self-control by avoiding anger, lectures, bargains, threats and warnings in dealing with your child's experiments with Yes and No, you teach your toddler how to handle strong emotions. Acknowledge his feelings and talk about your own. For example, say to your child, "You’re disappointed that your rainbow shirt is dirty" or "How frustrating!" It's raining so we can't have an outside picnic. But an inside picnic will be fun. Can you help me spread a blanket in the living room?" By showing your toddler that No is not the end of the story, you teach him how to replace the negative with positive feelings and behavior.

About the Author

Tamara Christine has written more than 900 articles for a variety of clients since 2010. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in applied linguistics and an elementary teaching license. Additionally, she completed a course in digital journalism in 2014. She has more than 10 years experience teaching and gardening.