Classic hack: Reverse psychology and the toddler

Duane’s hack uses his toddler’s natural propensity for saying “no”:

One for the “don’t forget the obvious” file: Reverse psychology, particularly for the 2yr olds, often works like a dream. My son is particularly vulnerable to it. Not a night goes by without this discussion: “Can you eat one more bite?” “NO!” “Ok, no more bites for you.” “Yes bite!” and so on. Or “Come put on your pajamas.” “No pajamas!” “Ok, no pajamas for you.” “Yes pajamas for me!”

I’ve even made things up to test the theory: “Can I bite your nose?” “No!” “Ok, no Daddy bite your nose.” “Yes Daddy bite my nose!” It’s particularly cute to see a 2yr old chasing you down and trying to shove his nose into your mouth :). I don’t know how long it’ll last but I’m milking it as long as it does!

Your mileage may vary. I have a child who, when I tried reverse psychology on him as a toddler, called my bluff every time. It went something like this: “Can you eat one more bite?” “NO!” “OK, no more bites for you.” (Crickets chirp; toddler squirms to be let out of his feeding chair thinking “that’s what I said in the first place.”) Sigh.

Related: Lots of toddler-wrangling tips in the 01-03yrs (toddler) archive


  1. Opher says

    I believe my daughter was about three when we had this exchange:
    “If you don’t finish your dinner you will not get any cake.”

    “If I don’t get cake now, I’ll never eat cake again!”

  2. Rebecca says

    I find that what works best for me is simply giving the child the answer I want to hear.
    “Please eat your food. Yes Mommy.”
    Then my child doesn’t question and just eats because they don’t have any choice in the matter, the answer has already been given!

  3. says

    Rebecca, that backfired on me when the older ones started using it against their mom. I would say stuff like “Elizabeth, do not throw toys at your brother, ok? Say ok.” But then she would say to my wife, “Mommy, I want cake for lunch, ok? Say ok.” Mommy did not like that.

    Bonus geek cred, though, for anybody who can get their child to spontaneously work “These are not the droids you’re looking for” into conversation with an unsuspecting adult :).

  4. kelly says

    I love this trick! My favorite time to use it is in the car when I want her to take her nap. I tell her that I need her to stay awake and she immediately tells me “NO! I’m tired!” and closes her eyes, lol.

  5. says

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one whose child has learned to give ultimatums with the best of them!

    “If you don’t snuggle me right now, I won’t go to sleep.”

    “If I can’t have cereal for dinner, I’m not eating.”

    I’m sure I could outsmart him if I tried, but I am just so tired…

  6. says

    But what do you do when they ask for something they suspect you will answer “No” to, you answer “Yes” but they’ve already lost their cool and are in meltdown Can’t-hear-a-word-you-say mode? I agree with Jamie– I’m just too tired to try to outsmart him anymore.

  7. says

    Re: dealing with the (usually reverse-psychology or ultimatum induced) tantrums:

    What I usually do (and what usually, not always, works) is get very quiet and calm (the more worked up they are, the quieter and calmer I get). I speak very quietly (so they have to quiet down to hear) and say “You’re upset because you don’t want to eat your supper (or whatever) and I want you to, right?”, or something else that shows I identify with the problem they’re having. It usually works.

    It’s gotten to the point now where our 3.5 year old, when he’s having a tantrum, will often say “I’m tired!” and go to lie on his bed to calm himself down. Once he’s quiet, we go in, thank him for taking control of his feelings so well, and talk about what caused the flair up.

    So far so good with our two (very differently tempered) kids.

  8. says

    When my son was younger he was incredibly negative about getting dressed

    I finally stated a game called “absolutely positively” that took advantage of his negatively

    Every day I would get out all his shirts & tell him “tell me which one you absolutely, positively do not want to wear” he would eliminate them one by one and eventually get dressed. I think that by the time he’d eliminated 10 shirts he was just done with saying “no”

    It seemed like it took forever, but in reality it was about 20 times faster than struggling to have him choose between 2 or 3 shirts.

  9. Robyn says

    I used this on my little sister for years. I would say, Don’t you dare eat another carrot. And she would eat another carrot. Don’t you dare xxxx. and sure enough, whatever I told her not to do, she would do. This was 20 years ago and we still joke about this.

  10. says

    I love “don’t you dare!” That brings up happy memories of when I used to use that with my kids. I can still see their faces lit up, giggling….and doing whatever I needed them to do! With two year olds, developmentally, there is a real struggle for personal power, too. So, I used to remember my aunt’s words ringing in my ears. Choose your battles carefully! Its so easy as a parent to get into the “no” habit and to create too many “don’ts.” Not good for a two year old, or any other age, really. So being careful about falling into the “no” trap is important, too. But no matter what, having kids sure is magic!

  11. Erika says

    My daughter refuses to say yes. Everything is either “No” or she just smiles at you, but we have only heard her say (yell) “Yes” at the cat when she is trying to keep him *exactly* where she wants him and we tell her that he may not want to stay *right* there.

  12. JenN says

    It will sometimes work on husbands, too! If mine asks if I’d like restaurant A or B, and I’d like A, I’ve learned to say B. Then he’ll decide we’ll go to A. It really used to bother me, until I discovered his whole family works that way. They don’t realize it, and I haven’t told them!

  13. erin says

    Sadly we tried this with our two year old last night and she just smiled as us and agreed that she “doesn’t get to have any salad”…

  14. says

    For eating, I have frequent success with the “Don’t eat that bean. The bean will be so sad! The bean is saying, ‘Oh, no, Julian, please don’t eat me!'” And then he eats it with a huge grin.

    Of course it doesn’t work with things he really doesn’t want.

    “Don’t sit in your high chair! Your high chair says, ‘Julian is too big! Too heavy! Don’t sit on me!'”

  15. Anonymous says

    Maybe I’m overthinking things, but I try not to do this because I want my kids to take me seriously every time I say “no” or “don’t”. I use those phrases sparingly to begin with, but I also don’t want them having to wonder if I’m actually warning them to not to do something or if I’m playing the “don’t do this” game. I know a lot of it is about context and tone of voice, but to me it just feels inconsistent to use it as a dare or a game if I want them later to know that I mean what I say.

  16. Mary says

    Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was helpful to determine if he just didn’t feel like doing the thing (in which case, “don’t wash your hands!” would work) or if he was dead set against it (“don’t put your clothes on!” “OK” “bugger, now what”).

  17. hedra says

    If we do it silly and over-stated, it works. If we do it seriously, they just go, ‘okay, I’m done’.

    It has to be playfully done, here, or they spot the reverse psychology ‘mommy has a plan here’ thing, and try to figure it out. If it’s silly, then it’s a game, the point is laughter, they’ll eat the darn thing (or pick it up, or whatever) to get the laugh and keep the game going. It stops being about the food item or chore, and starts being about us interacting.

  18. says

    My son calls my bluff every time and ups the ante. For example:

    Me: (At a restaurant) If you don’t sit still we’ll have to leave and we won’t get dinner.

    Son: Let’s go then. I’ll just play toys tonight and wait til breakfast.

  19. some_myrrh says

    I used to get my much younger siblings to behave by skipping the yes/no problem and going directly to the gray area: “If you did want to eat more, how many bites would you eat?” “If you did want to pick up toys, where would you put them?” That got them thinking about how they could do something they wanted, and they were much more cooperative.

  20. Nooshi says

    I’ve had great luck telling my 3 year old to get dressed “REALLY SLOWLY”. He quickly responds, “NO, I do it REALLY FAST!”. He stops dragging his feet and springs into action. It sort of plays on the “I can do myself” thing that he loves so much.

  21. CodeCrafter says

    This trick also doesn’t work on my child. He just agrees with us but he is only 21 months so maybe this will be useful at some point. I kind of wonder though if it is setting up for something bad in the future because it is basically teaching them to disobey and do the exact opposite of what you say and that you will be _happy_.

    I also wanted to add since some one brought it up my son has also picked up the habit of trying to use the Jedi mind trick. He will routinely says stuff like “Eat cookies! Yeeeeesssss! oooooK!” Makes me laugh every time how he draws out the yes and ok. I still haven’t gotten him to say “these aren’t the droids your looking for” though I will admit to trying much to my husbands dismay.

  22. says

    Your technique has worked at times, but I try not to overuse it, or my children may think it is Ok to choose to do what they want. I have found some days are worse than others. When my husband asks how my day has been, and my two year old was especially obstinate, all I have to say is: “The sky is definitely NOT blue!”

  23. says

    What is it about 2 year olds that makes them soooo contentious? Mine is, too. “Come here so I can change your diaper.” “No, I don’t want you to change my diaper!” “Ok, I’ll change your brother’s diaper.” “Nooooo! You have to change MY diaper!”

    Every conversation with her is like that. Well, at least we can use it till it stops working.