Getting To “No”

Ted Peterson

By: Ted Peterson

"I can do it myself!"

It’s universally acknowledged that the favorite word among all children from 18 months to four is “No.” The term for this among people who like five-syllable words is negativism, and it’s a normal, healthy part of development, as the docile infant discovers that he or she has some amount of independence. Degree of annoyingness varies by child, but it’s grating enough that it’s a central feature of the period accurately called “The Terrible Twos.”

Of course, the echoes of No are imitative as well as rebellious. Last week, after we put him to bed, Ian and I had a conversation about something – exactly what escapes me – that made us both start to laugh. From Mikey’s bedroom, we heard a stern reprimand: “No laughing! I already told you once!”

Once the vocabulary expands and the child can express an occasional “Yes” –to, say, Disneyland, ice cream, watching Dora the Explorer for the twentieth time, potato chips, not going to bed yet, and so on – then you realize that, in Nancy Reagan’s words, sometimes we should just say no after all. After all, the goal isn’t to raise a child who’s obedient, but one who makes smart decisions, and sometimes that decision is to refuse.

We got a phone call this week from our adoption agency about two girls, one a little older than Mikey and her two-year-old sister. They had no relatives except their mother, who was terminally ill. All stories in foster care are sad, and it’s never easy to say no to a placement, but we had to do a reality check, imagining us in our 1200 square foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house, with three toddlers all under four years old.

“Ah,” said my mom when I told her. “Two little girls would be so darling. I think you should have said yes.”

We didn’t. I still think about seeing one of the guys in our foster-adoption class, before Mikey came to us but after we had lost our first placement. He was sympathetic to our story and when we asked him if he had a placement, he informed us that he and his partner had been placed with siblings, an eleven-year-old, a six-year-old, and a two-year-old. I looked at his blank face as he added that his partner, an actor, was in Canada, so most of the time, it was just him with the three kids.

It sounded like the sort of horrible idea that turns out to be wonderful, but he was forcing me to ask, “So, how is it working?”

“It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Nothing else has come close.”

The lesson is, kids are great, but don’t be stupid. Learn to say no.

Negativism is also marked by a competitive “I can do it myself!” streak, which doesn’t show any signs of abating in our child. It may be that this has passed being a developmental stage and is now a personal trait. Grabbiness is another feature of the age, and there we’ve been lucky. Mikey has long been a good sharer, even when deep in the grip of the Terrible Twos. That’s great, but just like there’s a time to say “No,” there’s also a time not to share.

Case in point, something you don’t want to share in today’s email from his preschool: “We would like to inform you that there is a case of lice in the Two’s Room and Preschool Room that was found as of yesterday.”


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