Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: How to Say No to Your Toddler

How to Say No to Your Toddler: Creating a Safe, Rational, and Effective Discipline Program for Your 9-Month to 3-Year Old, By Will Wilkoff, M.D., Broadway Books, New York, 2003, 226 pages, $12.95 US.

Brief Overview of Content:

The first chapter of the book reviews why you'd want to read this book (you are having trouble saying "no" to your child or you do say "no" but it doesn't work, or you are like me and afraid of when that time comes). Sooner is definitely better than later to work on teaching your child how to accept "no" as an answer and the book will give practical advice on how to get the child on board. His first bit of advice is to prioritize behaviors you want to change, suggesting that you focus only on behaviors that are hazardous to the child, not on developing manners. He argues that "no" has become ineffective because parents may eventually give in to the toddler or that negative consequences have not been followed through, so the child doesn't take "no" seriously. He also looks at the causes of misbehavior to help identify solutions, such as the toddler or parent not getting enough sleep (we at ZPG can appreciate this), is the toddler sick or bored, etc. He then discusses the limited value of rewards for good behavior (diminishing on-going value) or arguing a child into doing the right thing (intellectual arguments can be useless with a sobbing toddler, or any toddler for that matter). The real deal with discipline is truth and consequences: set a limit, threaten a consequence when that limit is exceeded, and administer the consequence if the threat is ignored. The best consequence according to the author is the time out. He recommends that the toddler be sent to his or her room for one minute per age of toddler (thus a two-year-old would get two minutes). Quite controversially, he recommends that if a toddler keeps trying to leave the room, the parent should lock the door for the duration if needed. He immediately explains that the parent is there on the other side of the door for the short duration and listens for any sounds of the child hurting himself or other things in the room. He spends a great deal of time discussing limit setting and how to create cheap and practical limits on dangers to the child. If the bathroom is dangerous, just close the door and it is no longer a threat for the child. Installing a hook and eye is easy, inexpensive and quick. The author also discusses various situations in which a parent can effectively say "no", such as at bedtime, in the store, at mealtimes, when sick, when at daycare or grandmother's house. He concludes with a brief discussion of what to do when this plan doesn't work and of the importance of saying "yes" to your toddler.

Author overview:

Blurb from the back of the book: "A pediatrician for more than twenty-five years, Will Wilkoff, M.D., is the author of three previous books, including The Three Month Breastfeeding Guide and Is My Child Overtired? Dr. Wilkoff lives and practices in Brunswick, Maine." He describes himself in the book as a "realist", meaning that he bases his advice on 30 years of experience with parents and with his own children, though he does acknowledge that the psychological pigeon hole he would fit into would be "behavioral therapist."


1. Read cover to cover vs. consult as needed.

This book is relatively short and is intended to be read in the space of a couple of nights. The author acknowledges the limited free time that parents have (which is especially true for freedom-deprived zombie parents). Lots of practical advice is found throughout the book, so the reader can stumble upon little gems while reading the whole book (see the sample text). The reader can consult as needed thanks to a brief but thorough index.

2. Readability.

The writing style is very conversational and straightforward. You can imagine him as a country doctor from the good old days, dispensing easily digested wisdom along with his medical assessments. The author slips a bit between second person (mentioning "your toddler" and "you" sometimes) and first person (using "we" for parents, since he is one as well). This isn't too distracting.

3. Helpful to a parent?

Parents will get a lot of practical advice on how to deal with various situations that can or may come up during the toddler years.

4. Did we use it?

We've already set lots of practical limits on our children's ability to get into trouble, like putting a hook and eye on the basement door or locking up the cleaning chemicals and sharp knives in the kitchen cabinet that actually locks. Jacob has locked himself in his bedroom and our bedroom. Also, somehow he locked the downstairs bathroom from the outside. Luckily, we have a gizmo to unlock all of those doors. And we do try to get more sleep and make sure the children get sleep too. The method of stating a limit, then threatening a consequence and following through on the consequence has worked really well. I've put Jacob in his room for time out. Sometimes he's mad about it; other times he waits quietly. Once he kept asking, "Daddy, can you hear me?" which was a little heartbreaking but I let him have his two minutes before I responded. The last two time outs, Jacob apologized when he came out for his bad behavior and he has shown improvement. The system works for us.

Sample text

On why quality time doesn't always work: The second problem is that it is usually parents and not their children who define quality time. For example, most small children are early risers and fast starters; by late afternoon the best part of their day is behind them. At five o'clock many toddlers are too tired to even eat much of a dinner. If you arrive home at 6:30 expecting to spend some "quality time" with your two-year-old, you may have missed your opportunity to have some quality time, at least from the toddler's perspective. Your child may be too tired and cranky to play, even though you may be one of his favorite playmates. On the other hand, he may be stimulated into an ill-timed burst of energy that will delay his bedtime past a healthy hour. [p. 42. Curious about the first problem? Read the book, or send me a big donation and I'll let you know]

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