Our 3.5 yo is starting to talk back to us in the typical futile yes/no/yes/no pattern of opposites. The other day it was hooking his straps on his car seat; I asked him to put his arms in (like we always do) and he said "no, arms out." no amount of reasoned conversation could change his mind, and everything you said resulted in a stronger repetition of "NO. OUT!" by the fourth iteration he was in total meltdown/tantrum mode... a wild 180 degree swing from the happy sunny disposition he had been in for the previous couple hours.

Some other pairs:

  • "here's your snack, go sit at your chair at the table and eat it." ... "I go sit on soo-fah." (I don't even know where he learned "sofa", we call it a "couch". And we never eat anywhere near the couch, always at the table.)
  • "ok, pick which book you want daddy to read to you." (at bed time, standard ritual.) ... "no, mommy reads."
  • "put your coat on so we can go outside." ... "no, take OFF."

Now here's the rub. Several of these are just verbal... he's not following through with what he's saying, he's doing what we asked. (the eating at the table/sofa one is an exception... he did carry his snack over to the couch area.) For example, with the car seat one... as he's saying "No, arms OUT!" he's actively slipping the seat harness over his shoulder to put it on.

The part of this that really kills me is that we've recently learned he was being bullied at day care, some of the bigger kids knew he wouldn't fight back and wouldn't tattle, so when the teachers were distracted they were bossing him around and telling him he couldn't do this or that, whatever he was doing at the time. We've started to work on teaching him to stand up for himself in these situations and I really don't want to undermine that... but he seriously works himself up into a massive meltdown with these and I really want to bring a stop to them.


7 Answers 7


First of all -- now that you know the bullying is going on it should be eliminated, period. Most 3.5yo kids don't yet have the nuance to understand the difference between standing up for oneself and being mean. That's what grown-ups (and martial arts lessons, later on) are for. If the day care center is letting it go on, choose another one. That's a serious screw-up.

As for the backtalk, it's a thing kids do to try to gain power in a situation. I diffuse it pretty quickly with the following technique:

I am fine with my son stating a specific objection to something. For example, "no, I won't eat at the table" is not okay, but "Can't we eat outside, it's the first nice day this week!" is okay. If he tries the former, non-specific version, I just say "that's not a reason" and ignore further pleas unless they are specific. This is a building block of being able to hold his own in a discussion, not to mention a good conflict-resolution skill. When he is specific, I'll give in (if his reason is good), offer a compromise, or explain why we can't/won't do it his way.

However, once I've said "that's enough" or "end of discussion", it's over, period. I say it once, and go on behaving as if there was no objection. If he doesn't do as he was told, he goes straight to time-out. I never respond to yes/no wars -- as Bugs Bunny has many times demonstrated, you can't win one of those.

  • 9
    The day care center is shutting it down now that they know about it. The teachers there were absolutely CRUSHED when they learned it was happening behind their backs. The minute they heard the report that the school district speech teacher observed that as the explanation for him going completely quiet there (regressing on months of progress with his expressive language) but no where else, they immediately had a list of likely candidates for who did it and have already stepped up to put an end to it.
    – cabbey
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 8:41
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    I like your technique, but I fear it requires a bit more expressive language than he has available to him. That said, I'm gunna try it next time... who knows, he could surprise me. :) Normally I try to tell him why I asked him to do something, which doesn't get anywhere, as his responses have devolved from the old pattern of "oooh, ok." into this.
    – cabbey
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 8:44
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    If he lacks the expressive language, you can skip the "be specific in your objections" lesson for now and just make sure he understands when the discussion is over, and follow through on time-out when needed. It worked with my son when he was less verbal than that!
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 8:51
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    His receptive language is up to the task... I'm just going to ask "Why?" and stop and wait for an answer. :)
    – cabbey
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 8:53
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    the plan of asking him "why?" almost always works to nip the problem in the bud. I"m going to mark this as the accepted answer because, well, it works for us!
    – cabbey
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 19:23

Another thing you can do is stop whatever you're doing. For example, with the seat belt: Immediately switch to "then get out of the car, we're staying home."

Also, do you and your spouse do the "faux no" thing? e.g., he or she asks you to do something, you say "no" and do it anyway? I used to do that all the time, but had to stop because it was confusing the kids.

  • 2
    somehow I think "then get out of the car, we're staying here at the mall." right after a session in the play place just wouldn't quite have the same impact. :) That's an interesting question about the faux no. The wife has a habit of doing that with other things... I put an awesome meal on the table and ask how it tastes and get "meh." with a grin about 30 seconds later as she's plowing through the plate. I need to think and observe if we're doing that. In either case it's a great thought.
    – cabbey
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 17:16
  • If I could give this answer another 5 upvotes I would. In retrospect I think the faux no pattern was a huge part of this.
    – cabbey
    Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 16:23
  • @cabbey, at the mall the consequence would be sitting in the parked car in the parking lot, not going back in to play. That will get old quickly for a toddler if there are no toys or anything that have been brought along.
    – Aravis
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 15:30
  • @cabbey Somehow this reminds me of a lady who was scolding her child for running off on her own, and with the threat that she might be left there all alone ... at Disneyworld. I almost choked on my soda when I saw that.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 7:45

There is a BIG difference between sticking up for yourself, and talking back. Sticking up for yourself uses "I" language.

"I don't like that", "Stop, I don't want this game" . . .

Back Talk is not generally something a three year old truly engages in yet as it is a "game" or a power play that requires a certain amount of wit and timing honestly.

Steps to Take

  1. Deal with the fact that there are bullies at the school as best you can (this should NOT be happening in a three's classroom (well, or anywhere), but three's kids are NEVER alone. Your kid needs help with this one.
  2. Teach your child "I messages". Teach him to say his "I messages" loudly
  3. Role play and practice what to do in a bullying situation. You don't have to act out the bullying part, simply say, "ok, so and so just came up to you and is doing something you do not like. You say. . . " Then allow your child to practice, "I don't like that". Then say, "what if he/she keeps at it?" Then allow your child to practice saying it again AT THE TOP of HIS OR HER VOICE. This SHOULD attract attention from the teachers.
  4. Do not treat "I messages" used with you as back talk. He is learning a new skill. Instead, respectfully paraphrase, "I understand you don't like the car seat, but we do have to run errands and what is MOST important is that you stay safe. The car seat keeps you safe." If the "I message" is about something around which a compromise can be made, then make it. Alice often didn't like her long sleeved-shirts because I bought plain ones thinking she could just wear them under he short-sleeved shirts. This was uncomfortable for her and she didn't like the plainness of the shirts. Obviously, there were times when she had to have long sleeves, so we got some stencils and fabric paints and she decorated them. I never bought plain ones again.

Good Luck.


He's 3, he's learning to talk. Yes, it is annoying, but I would rather work on tone, than words at this point. He's not going to be able to make a compelling argument all the time, but his objections can have merit. I mean, what else does a 3 year old have control over?

When he says no to something, just repeat back what he should have said:

"I know you don't want to sit in a car seat, and you need a car seat to be safe".

"I know you would prefer mommy to read tonight, and it is daddy's turn and/or mommy is busy" (is there a specific schedule/routine to this?)

At least let him know you heard him, and give him a real reason on why something is happening. If you can't think of a reason other than "because I said so" maybe it is a good time to evaluate if he really needs to be doing it.

For all the reasons you've stated, I would never discourage my child, particularly a small one, from expressing the general concept of "NO!". I would just help them transition to a more verbally and socially competent approach by connecting with them and through role-modeling.

  • and, also, good question! Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 3:30
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    Just to further Christine's good point here, when you repeat back his opinion (paraphrasing), you are letting him know you heard his feelings, but. . . fill in the blank. An important stepping stone for teaching compromise and how to bring up wishes when he is older (as hedgemage outlines in her answer to the same question here. parenting.stackexchange.com/a/163/2876) Combine both answers and you've even got the next step for when he does become more communicative. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 3:59
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    in the interest of clarity, I did do that... I just use "and" instead of "but" - personal preference: using "but" implies that somehow the latter (the reason) negates the former (child's preference) which it doesn't. And, I believe in kind and firm: you can be kind/connected/empathic and firm/respectful with the needs of the situation (ie carseats are a safety requirement!) Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 11:40

I would first introduce the idea of "who's the boss"? The answer of course, should be Mom, Dad and Teachers. If he asks what a boss is then explain that the job of the boss is to organize and protect others.

The next step is to then explain that they need to listen to the boss or there are consequences.

  1. Not listening makes things disorganized which slows the group down or makes it impossible for the group to do certain things.
  2. Not listening can make things more dangerous for everyone.
  3. Not listening can result in a timeout.

I also worried about squashing my sons assertiveness, but the whole 'boss' concept sidesteps some of this. Because his peers are not a 'boss' he is free to defy them without breaking the rules.

In our case we reached a peak of defiance and had to rely on timeouts rather heavily for a while. Our method is to countdown from three before enforcing the timeout - as this offers an opportunity for him to see the consequence coming. By the count of zero he is in timeout with no further communication and as little emotion as possible - to minimize a potential power struggle. Finally we close the loop and ask him to repeat or explain why he was put in timeout, and when appropriate, make an apology. In my personal opinion, the last bit is key - talking about timeout, when it's over, is what brings the lesson home. Without the conversation the lesson doesn't sink in.


3 is the age when they start asserting themselves. They want to do everything themselves. If they are talking back or not wanting you to do something, it usually means they want to show you they want a say in it....or do it themselves. Talking back or outright not wanting you to do something can be a good learning time for them. When they do start being sassy or back talking take a step back and try to think why they are doing it. With the car seat strap for instance, if he say no or doesn't want to put his arms up, then you can say, "alright, you buckle in!" Most of the time they will be intrigued that they get to do it and they will try to do it themselves. When they try and don't succeed, don't tell them that's why you should do it. Wait for them to ask you to do it. While you are doing it, narrate what you are doing and then see if they decide to try again. By asking them to solve the issue of why they don't want to do something, it will help teach them better problem solving skills and help them with the good kind of independence. If they are older and talking back I have found that simply saying "I don't like your sassy words/tone of voice, I don't want to hear it" works very well. Children ultimately want to please their parents.


The sense of autonomy is very important for all of us, but especially from toddlers from about 2.5 y/o. While it is of course important that you keep your own integrity and don't neglect your own needs (doing so would certainly do more harm than good) you should let your child learn that you respect their autonomy, because if they don't have a sense of autonomy it has negative impact.

Just to give some examples:

  • Children that are punished for lying (and yes, lying is a kind of autonnomy, too), tend to lie more
  • Not having a sense auf autonomy has a detrimental effect on (intrinsic) motivation
  • The need for autonomy was shown to be associated with delinquency

(Please note: Not all of the results refer to children, but they show, how important autonomy is. At the moment I haven't got the possibility to find the results regarding toddlers)

Furthermore, and that's important, children tend to cooperate more, when their need for autonomy is satisfied. If they experience themselves as autonomous, there is no need to contradict in any situation, but they will do only if it's really important for them. If their needs conflict with yours you can still say no, but I'd advise you to balance your childs needs and yours. If it's uncomfortable for you at the moment, but a urgent need of your child, you can easily give way, but if it's an important need of yours you may easily deny. Anyway, you have to learn - and that is the really hard thing about it - to discriminate needs and wishes. You should always take your childs needs seriaous, even if you can't always comply, for the reasons stated above. Wishes may or may not have underlying needs, but you'll have to dig a bit deeper.

Naturally - but that should be out of question - if any of your childs request would danger them (going without a jacket is no danger!), deny.

Long story short, what can you do in the situations described?

  • Of course, in the car seat situation you have to be strict. Not having the arms in the straps is a (potential) danger. If you are really willing to skip the trip, communicate this, but don't blackmail them into doing what you want them to do. Otherwise be firm and explain how this is dangerous. Explain them that you can't go if they are not properly fixed.
  • You can easily be firm with the table-food-thing. Eating is a need, eating at the sofa is not. But don't say "we are not eating on the sofa because we are not eating at the sofa", but explain how this is a problem for you (sofas are expensive or at least expensive and hard to clean, this is the antique sofa of your grand-grand-mother or whatever)
  • If you are insisting that you and not your wife reads the book without a good reason that is random and hard to comprehend. In that case let them decide who reads the book. If there is a good reason that your wife does not (absence, migraine, the flu, analphabetism), explain it to them.
  • Let them chose not to wear the jacket, but rather put it in your backback. They will most likely ask for it once they experience that it is cold. But now it's not your but their decision (you know, autonomy)

There is much space for your child to decide and experience autonomy in everyday life and they will automatically become more self confident if they do. They will learn to express what is important for them and stand for themselves if they experience that there will always be different needs of different people and that their needs are usually heard (but not necessarily complied to - as I stated before, that would be harmful, because they would learn that they get everything, regardless of other peoples desires, what they will demand in the future).

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