Dear Mr. Dad: I feel like when I spend time with my 2-year old, I’m constantly telling him “no!” Is there some way I can enforce boundaries without being so negative?

A: It’s no wonder that one of the first words kids learn to say is, No. After all, it’s the word they hear the most—even more than mommy, daddy, or their own name. Since two-year olds are on a mission to destroy everything in their path, hearing No is important. But the problem with No is that it eventually becomes background noise and our kids tune us out. And when it comes to health and safety issues, that’s the last thing we want.

You have all sorts of legitimate reasons for saying No to your son. But in most cases, there are more-positive ways to accomplish your goal. Let’s say he wants a cookie right before dinner. Instead of saying No, you could get the same point across by saying something like, “You can have a cookie after dinner.”

When responding to your child’s requests (and demands), always remember the most important rule of parenting: choose your battles. For example, if he wants to dump dirty laundry on the floor and then throw it back into the hamper, who cares? That may not be your idea of spending quality time together, but as long as he’s not endangering anyone or anything, just sit back and marvel at the things that will entertain a toddler. And if you’re reading a book with your son, and he suddenly jumps off your lap and starts playing with blocks, fight the instinct to say, “No, we’re we’re in the middle of reading.” As important as reading is, playing can sometimes be more fun. So keep an open mind and save those Nos for when you really need them.

A lot of the Nos we toss around are designed to prevent our kids from doing something inappropriate or dangerous. Obviously, safety should be your top concern. But is he really in mortal danger every time you bark No? Take the common toddler pastime of throwing food. Rather than the easy No, try explaining why you want him to stop what he’s doing (“food is for eating, not throwing” or “throwing food wastes it and makes a mess.”) If necessary, offer a warning (“if you throw your food again, dinner will be over and you’ll be one hungry little guy.”) If you follow through on you threats, there’s a good chance that he’ll listen to you next time. Or the time after that.

One other thing to consider is that your child may be deliberately doing things he knows he shouldn’t because he wants your attention. In his mind, negative attention—you saying No—is better than no attention at all. So if he hits the dog or pours his milk all over your carpet (looking right at you to make sure you’ve seen the whole thing), rather than lecturing him, think about spending a little more time rolling around on the floor and actively engaging with him. Make this a habit and he’ll cut way back on looking for ways to get into trouble.

Of course, sometimes you need to say No. When you do, match your tone to the situation at hand. If you’re constantly screaming, No when your son dumps water on the floor, what are you going to do when he’s about to run into the road? Save the screaming for real danger and take the opportunity to teach your son how to use a mop.