“Don’t touch that!”
“Don’t run!”
“Don’t hit!”

And of course, the age-old classic:

“Don’t put that in your mouth!”

Toddlers love discovering the world around them, sometimes a little too enthusiastically. Toddler parents, however, mostly care about safety, good behavior, and their toddler’s overall well being. It’s little wonder that sometime between the time your little one becomes mobile and the time they begin school, “don’t” and “no” become the most often used words in a parent’s vocabulary.

But there’s an argument to be made that “don’t” and “no” language isn’t really all that effective. For one thing, toddlers are still building an internal vocabulary and won’t always get helpful cues from commands like “Don’t do that.” For another, it’s exhausting being told what not to do all the time!

When your child is in actual danger, of course, this all goes out the window. But for everyday “don’ts” like jumping on the furniture and putting their pants on backwards, a different tack may give better results.

At the core of the issue, your toddler is almost certainly not making mistakes to aggravate you. They genuinely don’t know how to do things right! They’ve only been around so long, you know. Rather than shower them with “no”s, try showing them what they should do, instead.

If they’re about to lose their grip on a plate full of food, for example, “Don’t drop that!” is really more of a prayer than an instruction. Instead, you might say something like, “Hold your plate carefully” or “Look at your plate, it’s about to fall!” You could also put hands on the plate yourself and demonstrate a better way to hold it.

If your toddler is a ball of energy running around the house, you’re only going to frustrate yourself trying to stop them with language alone. You’re going to need to find an outlet for that energy, and possibly reassess your daily schedule. “You’re going to get hurt. Let’s go outside” is a better choice if you can put a hold on what you’re doing, while a childrens’ exercise video (Cosmic Kids has great yoga videos, and some are on YouTube for free) works well when you can’t.

Sometimes, it’s not really necessary to say anything at all. When natural consequences are low risk, your toddler may benefit from experiencing them. Those lessons will stick a lot better! As parents, we tend to swoop in and put a stop to things rather than letting them play out. It may be a matter of convenience (“We don’t have time for this!”) or pure force of habit. Learning to step back when it makes sense to do so allows your toddler to practice making good decisions—and learning from bad ones.

Setting limits is a very important part of parenting toddlers, but discipline that is based on guidance rather than reproach is more likely to help your toddler make better choices in the future. The most important factor isn’t so much the language you use, but how consistent you are with the limits you set. When you stop leaning on words like “no” and “don’t,” and focus on teaching appropriate behaviors, you may find that your parenting—along with your connection to your toddler—becomes even stronger.