When My Child Says “No”
First published Spring 2019
When we watch a little child, particularly one under age three (but even a four-year old will delight us), we see so much imitation. The little one wants to do everything we do—sweeping, scrubbing, vacuuming, cooking. And the child will also imitate our gestures, repeat our indiscrete use of expletives (whoops!), mimic sounds both human and mechanical, and so on. It is endearing to watch the younger child cuddle and pretend to nurse the baby doll in imitation of mother and new sibling. It can also be maddening when we are in a hurry and want to be efficient, not wanting to take time yet again to sweep up what our child has now re-spread on the floor.
Then the child’s consciousness begins gradually to wake up more widely to the world. It is exciting to see self-awareness dawn, and new steps toward independence emerge. To the very young child, she and the world are one. He and mommy are an inseparable unit; there is as yet no experience of self and other. This budding, blooming self-awareness emerges gradually and really announces itself when the child speaks “I” of herself in a kind of glorious, sun-rising realization of “I am my own ‘me.’” This is a necessary and celebratory moment of growing into human-beingness that we are very glad to see.
But along the way to the I, first will come NO! This is not so endearing, and it rattles our parenting teeth. It is intense in the “terrible two” time, and may soften for a while. It is taxing to live with a child in this phase. Yet the advantage of the quite young child is that we can pick her up and literally move on to a new place. We can wordlessly offer the sleeve of the offending winter coat to her arm and begin to slip it on. Usually the child’s habit patterns will forget the NO, and begin to move on toward the solution of putting on the coat or transitioning from concentrated play to the dinner table. We can help ourselves toward a new attitude of appreciation of the child’s new steps toward personhood if we can replace “terrible” with “terrific” in our thinking.
Consciousness of self and others continues to expand, as it needs to. We generally hit a rockier time with the kindergarten-aged child (later 5 to 7) when the “no” takes on a more objective, sophisticated tone. If we could put words to this new phase, it might sound like, “No, I am beginning to experience myself as independent from you and the rest of the world. And I like it that way. I really don’t care to participate in your rules or expectations.” This “no” phase can be seen as rehearsal for the fierce, emotion-filled NO that commonly comes with adolescence, another challenging but essential passageway toward realizing selfhood.
This discussion exploring no-ness is useful in helping us realize how important and purposeful these stages are. We have to go through separation to experience self before we can join the world in social life out of our own freedom. But the practical question is how do we live with it? How do we navigate the moments that seem oppositional, defiant, or just plain stubborn? This is a big discussion with many layers. As a beginning, we can look at how, in our daily family life, we lay the foundation for meeting the no’s when they come.
Our own parental attitude sets the ground upon which everything else will stand. A first essential step is to cultivate our own certainty and positivity about what we ask for. If we approach certain moments with dread or a sense of burden, so will the children. They live into our moods and attitudes intuitively and imitate the same. If the house is a scattered mess with toys, shoes, books, random mittens, lunch boxes, and so on, we might ourselves feel like wanting to run away from it. I personally remember many moments like this that my husband and I had with a young, busy family.
But the task is elevated if we can think of this not as a grim chore, but as a service to the care and nurturing of our family life. We can encounter the “no” differently if we hold in our consciousness that we tidy, we sweep, we fold and put away clothes, we brush teeth, we go to bed on time, we eat together, we clean the kitchen after the meal because it honors our family intention to live together well with each other. We all have a part in creating our family culture and habits of work and play. We are each important in our contribution. We do things together because it supports everyone’s well-being.
When the “no” comes, behind our response can be this inner affirmation:
I am the parent. I am not mean and authoritarian. I have thought my way through this and know that what I am expecting and asking is fair and because it is what the moment needs. We all help in our own ways. In time, you, my child, will understand how important it is for you that I set the tone and habits of our life together. This will help you to grow well. To see that you grow well is my job, the task I signed on for as a parent. I cannot abandon it merely because it is difficult in this moment and you do not like what is asked of you.
When this authentic surety stands behind, underneath, and around these moments, we are on firmer ground, which is supported by forces of goodness. We can then perhaps respond with a friendly, cheerful, “Helping our things go to their homes is what we are doing now. We all help. The toys, boots, and books are waiting for help to go home. Show me which one you will help.” And then we all begin to do our work. The cheerful model we provide, the surety and positivity with which we speak, and getting to work with our doing-will is more powerful than we realize.