When I ask the question, “Why do toddlers and preschooler say no to us?” in talks and workshops, the answers I get tend to run along these lines:
• They’re differentiating themselves from us.
• They’re testing boundaries.
• They’re expressing their individuality.
As sensible as these answers sound, I’d like to suggest an alternative perspective that has the ability to change your day-today interactions in an enormously powerful way.
This new mindset starts with the idea that, while the answers given in the list above are indeed important developmental undertakings during the toddler years, they are actually not the reasons that children say no to us the vast majority of the time. In fact, I propose that most of the time when children say no to us, what they are really saying is, “I don’t feel as connected to you right now as I wish I did.”
When we hear a “No” from our child and respond by taking a moment to connect, then a child’s resistance often melts away. We side-step that power struggle and our days suddenly go more smoothly.
The Importance of Taking Time to Connect
We can connect by giving a snuggle, being silly, or by turning what we’ve asked into a game. Basically, by doing anything that makes your child say, “Again!” Of course, being silly and playful is often the last thing we feel like doing when we ask a child to do something and they refuse. And they often refuse right when we’re the most busy, overwhelmed, or running late—that’s WHY they feel disconnected.
It is because children feel disconnected when we’re least likely to want to turn things into a connecting and enjoyable experience that it’s important to emphasize: by turning things into a game, we are not tricking our kids. We are not making them forget their desires for independence and autonomy. We are being responsive to their need for connection. When we are responsive to them, they are better able to be responsive to us in return.
And finally, a reminder: when a child says “No,” we don’t just play a game and call it a day; we are taking a moment to connect in order to HELP them do what we’ve asked. We’re working on creating a Mutually Responsive Relationship.
If You Want to Connect With Your Child, Don’t Forget to S.M.I.L.E.
SINGING (and rhymes)
Songs can be silly, they can be soothing, or they can be rousing. Sing songs from your childhood! Make up words and sing about what you’re doing to the tune of your favorite rock song, or Twinkle, Twinkle.
MOVEMENT (and touch)
Swing your child around! Hang her upside-down! Run races!
Wheelbarrow walking, flying like an airplane, bouncing on your lap (love those horsey rides), stroking his arms, his hair, his back are all fun or loving touch. Give hugs. Play touching games like “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” or “All Around the Haystack.”
IMAGINATION (and more imagination!)
Ask your child to be “quick like a bunny,” “quiet as a tiny little mouse,” “strong like a bulldozer.” Instead of cleaning up, ask your little squirrel to put all of the nuts into their spots, because winter’s coming!
LOVE (and appreciation)
Give hugs. Give kisses. Make eye contact and smile. Tell your child how much you love her, in detail! “I love your sweet cheeks (kiss, kiss). I love your nose (kiss).” Appreciate your child’s physical experience and describe his sensations.
Finally, if you can’t figure out how to connect, get interested: “What’s going on?” Listen to understand. This is a type of appreciation, too.
EXAGGERATION (and humor)
Make everything bigger, heavier, sillier. Talk in funny voices.
Make up sound effects. Pretend you don’t know how things go. Pretend that you want it even more than they do! Be silly and have fun. Combine it with singing or movement or exaggeration or love for extra power!
Want to learn more about the research behind each element of S.M.I.L.E., or more examples of how to make it work in real life? Find out in my book, Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love (Hohm Press, 2017) available on my website, Amazon, or anywhere books are sold.
Warmly, ~Miss Faith