Tell strong-willed toddlers what they should DO

Holly sent this hack to me with the subject line, "Parenting the Id." I get it, big time. I have a strong-willed child who used to be the strong-willed toddler Holly describes here. Her wise suggestion:

My 16 month-old girl is quite a handful. She's been described to me as "mischievous, jaded and too smart for her own good". Parenting her has made me a more creative person, out of sheer necessity. I've realized the past few months that the constant "Don't throw your food!", "Don't pick up that condom wrapper from the sidewalk!", "Don't dig in the trash can!", "Don't pick the neighbor's tomatoes!" only seem to encourage her to do exactly what I'm forbidding. It's almost as if she translates the "Don't" as "Hey, awesome. Go ahead."

Instead, we've started to tell her what TO DO. For instance, when she's about to pick up a cigarette butt on the ground, we say "Yucky. Step on it." It redirects her action and becomes something she does every time she sees trash on the ground. Same for throwing food on the floor, "Put it on your tray." It sounds so simple, but it has changed our lives.

This concept also extends to taking dangerous objects away from her. When she gets her hands on the nail clippers or the infant Tylenol bottle, I pick her up and take her to where we're going to "put it away". She loves the involvement and never fusses (or realizes) that we're tricking her into putting it down.


  1. says

    I’m a huge fan of this approach, having a similarly willful kid. Follow it up with bigtime praise for doing the right thing, and you will avoid a LOT of tantrums!!

  2. says

    love this!! i have been stuck in the “don’t” rut with my very stubborn and, oh, “spirited” 18-mo. son. good reminder to try a more positive spin.

  3. says

    Brilliant simple advice. I realized early on that we were reinforcing bad behavior in this way because one of her first words was “No!” We’ve pretty much cut out use of the word “don’t” but we need to work “No!” or “Whoa!” out of our vocabulary as well.

  4. says

    Awesome indeed. Also, asking for their assistance proves worthwhile (most of the time). “Hey, would you help me put this medicine into the medicine drawer?”

  5. Karen says

    Great advice, though I guess I’ve just always done this intuitively. But I don’t see this as being about whether a kid is particularly willful or not; most kids are just so incredibly visual — if you give them a mental image that’s negative (“Don’t touch that!”), they’ll wonder what it would be like. If you give them a positive one (“Keep your hands at your sides”), they’ll be more likely to follow suit. This is especially good for potentially dangerous situations. I never say, “Don’t run into the road!” I say, “Stay here on the sidewalk with me and hold my hand.”

  6. hedra says

    I got this same advice from my best friend (a Kindergarten teacher). She said that kids need to know what TO do – just saying what NOT to do leaves them too many options, and they either get confused/anxious or simply pick the most entertaining one at the moment. And if you say ‘Don’t do X’, you’ve just given them an idea they might not have come up with otherwise!

  7. says

    I’ve been trying to get my husband to do this for years. And I’ll usually rephrase one of his “don’t”s (or one of mine that slipped ;-D) with a “do”.

    I realized this is what we needed to do when I read some of the self-help stuff out there. It explains that our minds don’t “see” NO (don’t, etc.). So when we say “Don’t pick up that cigarette!”, the child sees it in their mind as, “Pick up that cigarette!”.

    So don’t save this advice just for your strong-willed children (and hopefully you all have strong-willed children – it’s a good thing) – use it for all children, adults, and yourself. :-P

  8. Ashley says

    I second Barb’s comment and I’ll follow up with a short anecdote. My two year old niece was retrieving a soda from a vending machine and Grandma told her “Don’t shake that soda.” To which niece immediately began shaking it. She was scolded for it and niece’s reply was, “But Grandma, you TOLD me to shake it.”

    My son is only ten months old, but ever since I heard that story I have been trying to eliminate Don’t and No from my vocab. It is suprising how often I used it before.

  9. HDC says

    I saw this same recommendation the other day on a Discovery Channel show. The interviewed expert said that the concept of “don’t” is very hard for toddlers to grasp which is why this approach works.

  10. Parent Hacks Editor says

    Not that I have a problem with a well-placed “no,” mind you! But when “no” becomes a refrain, it tends to fade into the background noise.

  11. Jill says

    Children usually remember the last thing we say to them. Remember the Peanuts specials on TV? “mwap mwap mwap mwap mwap.” This is how we sound to a busy toddler. Therefore, the last few words of the directions are what they hear. Instead of “don’t run”, try merely “stop”- for all ages, spouses too!

  12. says

    With reference to the variant of “Stop” over “Don’t run”, I’d like to mention my method: Cite the rule, let the child decide.

    In other words, instead of making a decree, I try to get their attention by calling their name (and if stopping is a goal, this method provides the desired results). Once I have their attention, I remind them of the rule “Remember, there is no running in the house.” Then I ask what they will do. If they say “Walk”, I reply, “Sounds like a great idea,” which further provides them with a sense of control, as though walking was their idea. This normally breeds empowerment and a positive feeling about accepting rules. Everyone wins.

  13. Jill says

    Stu Mark: In addition to your suggestion that they decide for themselves what to do (correctly), I must add that this can be expanded. When a conflict of any type occurs, if the child is calm enough, ask them what ELSE they could do. And, don’t stop at one idea. See if they can come up with several ideas and then choose one to follow through with to do. My son could do this occasionally at 4yo, and it seems like a great way to teach kids that there are always multiple answers to problems. If “our rule is no running in the house”, then “I could walk”, “I could crawl like a worm”, and “I could sit to play a game” would all be answers that would be acceptable. I love helping them push their brains one step ahead.

  14. says

    Jill, Absolutely! That’s a fantastic idea. I also enjoy pushing their brains, and love opportunities like that. I’m just a guy, so I get into problem solving mode, which means looking for the most efficient solution. Your way is better, no doubt.

  15. private says

    Is spanking ok? What do you do with a 4 yr old on Vacation – when you can’t send him to his room for a rime out?

  16. says

    When mine were little, if they picked up something they shouldn’t have, I would pretend they meant to give it to me all along. I’d hold out my hand for it and say, “Oh! Thank you!” with a big smile and they’d give it right to me!

  17. says

    With regard to spanking, there are are different viewpoints, and I won’t judge. I will say that we do not spank at our house, that we also do not yell. If the kid in question is being an utter bastard, I first think “what’s the worst that can happen if I just give in. What if I pretend that I thought about it and agreed that they were right?” If I have way to establish a time-out right then and there, sometimes a nice rationalization makes everything cool.

    On the other hand, if they are resistant to something serious, like “I know we’re on vacation but I said no, you may not drink the bleach”, then sometimes I resort to crying, begging, bribing, whatever will work. Obviously you don’t want to normally reward bratty behavior, but giving in once in a blue moon is perfectly reasonable. It’s the price you pay for your own sanity.

  18. says

    Telling children the natural consequences of their actions and asking them if that’s what they want usually works well for me.

    “Sometimes we see broken bottles in the trash can here at the park. Do you want your hand to get cut by a broken bottle?”

  19. hedra says

    For the vacation rules, we talk out consequences before anything happens. This is after having learned the hard way that they often don’t carry the rules with them to a new place. ALL bets are off, including basic safety, as far as they know.

    Prevention is better than consequences, so setting up the situation (especially on vacation) to allow for better behavior is really useful. The same principle as saying ‘do’ instead of ‘don’t’, really. Explain in detail what is expected (every item must be a DO, not a Don’t) at each location, before each new event, and at all transitions. Be sensible and reasonable, as well – consider putting in things like, ‘if you need to run around, tell me and we’ll try to find you a safe place to run. If we notice you need to run around before you notice it, we’ll do the same.’ That can be a ‘do’ for Mommy/Daddy. It is boooooring for mommy/daddy, but it works really well. It also helps you think through the possible disaster options ahead of time (even if only just moments ahead), which can be a real advantage.

  20. andicb says

    With regard to the spanking/time out issue, I just wanted to add that it is actually very helpful to have a corner be a “time out” place. There are corners everywhere you go, and it can be even more boring than a room, too. You could also take them out to the car—this works for the grocery store and countless other situations, too.

  21. carlos says

    I’m a parent, (recent) grandparent and the husband of an in-home daycare provider (for close to thirty years) I’ve been both an observer and participant in child development and training.

    As has already been pointed out, children tend to think in pictures (they don’t know how to read yet and don’t grasp many abstractions) so simply prefacing an action with “Don’t” doesn’t have the intended effect. “Don’t run into the street” is difficult to picture until you drop the “Don’t” and it becomes easy to visualize.

    As far as giving in to a child who is throwing a tantrum, It’s my opinion that a person actually trains their child to throw tantrums by giving in. Children need to know what the rules are. We have no problem with children in our home that the parents recount horror stories and frustrations about continually. The reason some parents feel that they have to give in for the sake of their sanity is that they’ve trained their child that what the parent says is changeable given enough grief and a high enough frustration level on the parent’s part. For instance, I witness the following interaction on almost a daily basis:

    “Don’t do that.”
    “I told you to stop that!”
    “Didn’t you hear me? I said not to do that.”

    This can go on indefinitely. If the child is damaging someone elses property it may not end until the show moves to a different venue. If it’s something that isn’t dangerous the parent may say, “Alright. Here.” and give the child something they’ve been whining for. The problem is that the child never knows when “Stop” means stop and when it just means “Keep hammering on me until I cave in”. In that case the default, if the child wants to do something is to hammer away. The problem is greatly compounded when the child isn’t just doing something destructive, but dangerous to themselves or others. You may not have time to play the ‘How many times do I have to tell you’ game in those instances.

  22. says

    This works on dogs too. Simply saying no isn’t enough, and ‘bad dog’ doesn’t work at all. What does work is a firm ‘no’ to stop bad behaviour, and then a redirect. So if my dog’s chewing a shoe, I say, ‘no, chew this’ and offer him a toy. When he chews the appropriate thing, he gets a ‘good boy.’

    I think most feeling beings prefer to do something good over something bad, so it’s a matter of making it easy and most pleasant to do what is good.

  23. Matt says

    Good advice! Have to disagree, though, that kids simply “see” or “hear” the wrong thing when you state things in the negative. While miscommunication does certainly happen, for the most part kids do the opposite of what you tell them because they are defying you. Explain it away or ignore it and you’re treating the symptom, not the problem.

    I think the “state it in the positive” tip sounds great, as long as it’s coupled with thorough training in respect for and obedience to authority!

  24. says

    Lots of good info! Thanks! Matt, it sounds like you are trying to instill “obedience to authority” as a value in itself. As you aren’t able to predict who will be in authority and what they will be demanding of your child in the future, doesn’t it make more sense to instill values like cooperation, thinking out the consequences of actions, and consideration for others (some of the applicable values in the examples cited) instead of valuing obedience?

  25. Rick says

    Great parenting tip! My child never even heard “NO” or “DON’T” until nearly 2 years old. So of course, we never heard that from her, which was pleasant. However, due to a daycare older “bully”, we needed to add the “NO” word to her vocabulary, which she needed, but of course “backfired” on us a bit into the “terrible twos”, particularly when a new baby arrived. We’ll try to get back to “accentuating the positive”. Thanks for the reminder!

    Another challenge is overcoming inertia. Children want to continue whatever they are doing, especially if you are in a hurry to move on to something else. I found that instead of saying “We need to go NOW!”, that “5 more minutes, OK?”. They feel empowered and have a chance to transition.

    And as far as yelling/spanking or other “use of force”, I rarely need to go there. As long as the child has privileges that she doesn’t want to give up (dessert, TV, etc.) I have the upper hand in negotiations. Though I will use force when she is about to put herself or someone else in danger of physical harm, and no time for negotiation.

  26. LL Cool F says

    Yeah, that’s pretty good.
    Another way to teach your child to respect you and adults is to have them repeat after you, something I do instinctively for some reason. My 7 year old is polite and kind and mild mannered and a genuinely good boy thanks to this.
    F’rinstance: with my 3 year old, when I tell him to pick up his toys, I gently add a “say yes father”. Not in a mean or stern way, but cutely.
    Try it yo!

  27. NicoC says

    Good trick.
    Here’s another : give them a choice.
    For example, do you want to brush your teeth before OR after you put you pajamas?
    On which shelf would you like to put this book on the floor, this one OR that one?

    Just try it…

  28. carlos says

    Matt, it’s certainly your call as to whether you agree or disagree, but let’s try a little experiment:

    Try visualizing yourself not running into the street. Trouble is that’s also a picture of not doing a lot of things, not just the behavior you want to focus on. If you try to picture walking back to the front porch, that’s a specific and isn’t a representation of much else.

  29. Anonymous says

    On the spanking issue, don’t. Your child will know this happens, because of your impotence. It is a clear sign you are not in control, just a strong bully. And one day it will happen, as it happend to my petite mother, when I was 12 and taller than her. I just caught her arm and calmly asked her if she really thought this was a good idea. She couldn’t buge, I didn’t hurt her, but from this day it was clear that she has lost her power. She was ashamed, because I was calm and rational and she was emotional and irrational.
    Just remind yourself, your child may one day, in not too far a future, be taller and stronger than you. And then you cannot go the spanking route ever again.
    My mother only spanked me 3-4 times in my entire lifetime, but believe me a child does not forget and no it didn’t help or make things easier for my mother, it made things harder.

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  31. says

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  32. Chantel Hammer says

    I am so glad to know that my grandchild is not the only wild child in the group. Ours has so much energy. She can turn in circles and run around the house for an hour without stopping. You would think she would be tired but shes not, she will go back and do that again. She is a little over 2 years old. I was starting to think maybe there was something wrong with her. My children were never like that. Do other children do this too?

  33. Emma says

    On the spanking topic. I was spanked as a child and don’t believe that I suffered any adverse effects from it. My husband and I don’t see any problem with a physical slap on the wrist to stop our 15mo daughter from doing something dangerous, i.e. playing with power cables. We always give a warning first and remain calm, “Alta, if you touch the wire again you will get your hand slapped.”

    This being said; most of the time we try to do a time out or stop her from doing something she likes. The other day she was sitting with me on the couch and I stopped her from pulling on our dog’s tail. She got angry, screamed and hit me in the face. I held her wrist and said calmly, “If you hit mommy again you’ll have to sit on the floor.” She slapped out again and I put her on the floor.

    For me the difference between a slap on the hand and getting a timeout is how dangerous the situation is. You could get hurt by touching the wires, so the consequence for touching them is a small hurt. You could make mommy sad by hitting her so the consequence is sitting on the floor where you’re sad. Let me add that my daughter hadn’t tried to touch the power cords for more than 3 months and hasn’t tried to hit me again either.

    In a situation when she picks something up or starts running off in the wrong direction I try to have her make the right choice. “Alta, please hand Mommy that cup! Oh thank you so much!” “Why don’t we go into the grass, the playground is over there.” (Instead of going in the street) Also I give her small choices, “Alta, would you like to wear pants today, or a dress?” and hold up the choices for her to pick from. I think that when your child is given choices it removes a lot of strife and when there is a situation where there isn’t a choice (it doesn’t matter how much you want to, you still can’t touch the cord) give a warning with a consequence and then follow through; your child will respect your authority.

  34. MC says

    I think most of the people who wrote in here have no clue what a strong willed child is. All the advice here is for normal children. The advice is great, but it’s not going to help anyone who has a strong willed child.

  35. says

    Another trick I’ve used is giving them two options for action, both of which you’re happy for them to take.
    This way, they’re making a decision for themselves, and you’re getting them to do something you want them to do.

  36. says

    Just wanted to say that this is great advice. I try to do this and when I do I find it works a lot better. It’s so true (like some commenters said) that toddlers hear only the last part of what you say. “Don’t touch the stove” becomes “the stove” or even “touch the stove.”

  37. Anonymous says

    We found this randomly, too. We needed to say “you don’t throw rocks you….PLACE them.” and so now our son PLACES every rock he sees. Then he reorders them. Then he reorders them again. But he doesn’t throw them. You THROW balls, but you PLACE rocks.

    Similarly, when he wanted to play with small things with cords, “no, mommy unplugs it; you CARRY it” and he’d put it away. I unplug, he carries. Likewise, you color on paper, not on the carpet.
    So he was doing these things at 14 months before he learned how much physical capacity he had. Now he’s essentially tricked. Won’t last forever, but he’s 17 months, so it’s been 7 glorious months.

  38. says

    This is a fantastic idea. I’m still stuck in the DONT DO THAT mindset. But I can see this would work with my 2 year old. He loves putting things away and in their right place. I will try it!

  39. lindsey says

    With the spanking issue:

    If you can do it in a controlled, rational manner – and it can be done – feel free….but don’t even dare hit that child if you’re even the slightest bit angry or emotional. There is a fine line between discipline and abuse. Walk it carefully.

  40. says

    Hi! Just found this post through Stumble Upon.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestions to use positive phrasing, and agree with some other posters that this works so well mainly because kids are visual thinkers and aren’t able to process “don’t” and “no” very well.

    Also, for a great, short article that redefines the idea “wilful” children, check out this article:

  41. Chris says

    The suggestions are excellent (I even have a friend claims not understanding, “don’t,” is the problem she had training her dog)

    My older son, 20 now, never seemed to have a problem understanding when no was maybe negotiable and when no meant the action or myself would send him to the hospital. He maybe even had too good of an understanding.

  42. Margi says

    I know this is a very late reply/question to these tips….but do ya’ll have any advise for a 47 y.o. mother that has a 3 year old son. I’m also bi-polar, anxiety, depression….so unfortunately, i’m a yeller, spanker, get really mad, then cry, then depressed for yelling in the first place, and then……too tired to do anything disciplining at the end of the day……