09/09/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

The Second Most Useful Phrase I've Learned as a Parent (Toddler Edition)

Betty Udesen / Pear Press

The scene: We're at the playground, having a ball. My toddler screeches with joy at meeting another 2-year-old. She holds his hand as they take big steps up the stairs to the slide, the picture of cuteness. She waits at the top of the slide for her new friend to sit down, too, so they can slide down together. They do this over and over and over again. She discards her boots on the grass and abandons her sweater on the bench: getting serious now.

But it's time to go.

Or: Our little gymnast has figured out how to pull her stool from its slot between the fridge and the wall, unfold it, place it just so, hoist herself up onto the kitchen counter and get some dried peaches from the upper cabinet. (Let's ignore, for this post, the acrobatics.) As soon as I say, "No more peaches," I see a tantrum brewing across her face.

How to head it off and still get those peaches back?

Or: It's bedtime, and my husband has just finished reading a story with our toddler in bed. She's picked, of course, the longest book she owns. (He still has enough patience at the end of the day to read every page, whereas I know exactly which parts to skip so the story still makes sense. In my version, the Cat in Hat falls on his head, the fish in the pot says what a mess... hey, here comes the Cat to clean it all up!) My husband closes the book. Our daughter's usual response: "Again!"

A straight-up "No, it's bedtime" would bring on big tears -- just as it's time to float peacefully into sweet dreams.

Every day, multiple times a day, one phrase saves the day: "One more, and then ____."

"One more dried peach, and then please put the bag back in the cabinet. Those are a treat. We eat just a couple and save the rest for another day." (Do as I say, not as I do...)

"One more time down the slide, and then we'll put on your shoes and go home. Grandma is meeting us at home soon."

"One more story, and then I'm going to turn out the light, kiss you goodnight, and close the door. It's time for sleeping."

Why does this little phrase work as often as it does? A few reasons.

I talk more about them in Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I've Learned So Far):
  • It sets clear expectations for what will happen next.
  • It provides you with an opening to calmly explain your reasoning.
  • And it defuses a power struggle. Toddlers, like all of us, seek control over our lives. You can imagine how you would feel if someone grabbed your favorite snack right out of your hands and said, "OK, that's enough."

"One more time" means both of us get what we want.

If my toddler still struggles to comply, I lightly remind her of our deal. "No, I said one more time, and we did one more time." I turn on some enthusiasm, even if I'm low on patience and have to fake it: "That was so much fun, wasn't it? We can do that again another time. Now we're going to ____."

The trick here is to swiftly move to do that next thing, rather than let my intentions dissipate by just kind of standing around -- or rendering my word meaningless by agreeing to another "one more time."

But more often than not, it works pretty well. I need to say it only one time.

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