Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene No! No! No! No! No!

A volcano of negativity replaces that adoring infant

By Margaret Renkl

APRIL 12, 1999:  "Sweetheart?" I call down the hall to my 2-year-old. "No," he calls back. This is his standard response. The child is not in trouble. He's not sick. He's not tired or in need of a nap. He's not just up from a nap and still disoriented and disgruntled. What he is, is 2 years old.

Any 2-year-old is the king of contrary, the nabob of negativity. Whatever the question, a 2-year-old's answer is "No." Sometimes, of course, "No" is a perfectly reasonable answer to a question. When I ask my toddler if he'd like to go with me to the grocery store, it doesn't hurt my feelings when he'd prefer to stay home and play with Dad. When I ask him if he wants another piece of toast for breakfast, I'm prepared for the answer to be "Unh-uh," the toddler equivalent of "No thanks, I'm full."

But when I'm trying to cheer up a disconsolate child whose brother has just been invited to play in a neighbor's yard without him, I'm never prepared for the response to a suggestion like, "Let's go swing, honey," or "How about we go make us an ice-cream cone?" to be a stubborn, pouty-lipped "No."

The truth is that 2-year-old children say no to everything. Even when a 2-year-old wants to say yes, when every fiber of her being is leaning toward the proffered ice-cream cone, when the parted lips are actually drooling in expectation of the sweet cold froth of cream ringing that cusp of yellow cone, the little toddler mouth itself is independently forming the one word which any toddler worth her salt is absolutely compelled to utter, regardless of picayune concerns like anticipation and desire: "No."

I have a friend who tried once to see just how long her 2-year-old son would continue to decline treats she knew for a fact he adored.

"Honey," she said, "would you like a lollipop?"

"No."

"How about a cookie?"

"No."

"We've got a new Barney video; want me to turn it on?"

"No."

"Let's go watch the cement mixers."

"No."

"Want to go swimming?"

"No."

By the time she got to "Would you like a sip of my Coke?" the poor little guy was frantic. Tears were pouring out of his eyes. His whole face was red with the exertion of warring impulses: the urge to luxuriate in this unexpected bounty of pleasures, and the equally unstoppable urge to decline all offers, negate all questions, rebuff all suggestions.

He never did give in. His mother finally just abandoned the experiment for fear the kid would suffer a psychotic episode right then and there and require hospitalization for the rest of his tormented life.

If you ask me, it's parents who are likely to suffer a psychotic episode the first time they're confronted with this level of childish recalcitrance. There's absolutely nothing in the first year or so of parenting that prepares people for the horrors ahead. One day you're cradling a rosy, adoring infant smiling up at you as though you're Queen of the Universe, and the next day you're on the bloody-kneed, blue-shinned end of a full-blown tantrum.

How does it happen that a baby who has never once made an unreasonable demandwhose every previous request has been for a perfectly understandable nap or a cuddle or a meal or a dry diapercan suddenly be transformed into a toddler whose invariable response to any offer or suggestion is the one-word equivalent of "Not on your life, bitch"?

At first it's just a simple "No!" Then, as the months go by and the child's vocabulary increases, the negativity becomes ever more finely expressed. My own 2-year-old is now pushing 3, and his initial response to any meal I set before him, even if it's a menu he selected himself, is to articulate disgust. "Yuck! Don't yike dat!" he'll say and climb down from his chair, returning only later, when he thinks I'm not looking, to wolf down the whole serving.

Developmental psychologists are frequently quoted in parenting magazines to assure bewildered first-time parents that this kind of behavior is perfectly normal, a function of a child's budding individuality. Babies, they say, are unaware that they are separate beings from their mothers, but it dawns on them gradually, sometime during their second year, that Mom is one person and baby is another.

If you're a baby, this is amazing news, emboldening and terrifying all at once. On one hand, it's nice to know that as a separate being you get to make some choices in this smorgasbord world of magnificent options. On the other hand, it's not all that nice to realize that as a separate being you're the tiny, powerless one. When toddlers say "No," then, they're asserting their identity as a separate being and simultaneously providing Mom and Dad an opportunity to demonstrate that they've got things under control, that this tiny, powerless being can in fact count on them to handle things when the bogeyman shows up.

Developmental psychologists have a lot of useful things to tell us about why our inarticulate young children behave in such seemingly irrational ways. But when I hear my own youngster wagging his finger at his baby brother and saying "NO!" as sternly as his tiny high-pitched voice can manage, it occurs to me that maybe the poets had some sensible things to say on this subject, too.

The other night I called my toddler to supper. I expected his usual "No!" but I got a dose of my own brand of negativity instead. Offhand, without even looking up from his toy stove, he said, "Not yet. In a little while." These are, of course, the very words I've used countless times myself to delay fulfilling all manner of childish demands, and they made me think of Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode. According to the poem, infancy is a holy time when human beings haven't yet forgotten their divine origins. Unfortunately, those "clouds of glory" do recede, bit by bit, on the child's way to adulthood, and what ultimately causes the sacred knowledge to dissipate is the way the child spends so much time copying the mundanity of his parents' lives, "As if his whole vocation/ Were endless imitation."

For children, the empowering utterance, the straightest path to adult authority, is "No." My 2-year-old forbids his baby brother the same kinds of things his father and I (not to mention his bossy older brother) forbid him. "No-no, don't eat dat!" he cautions the baby who's reaching for his sandwich. "No-no, dat might hurt baby," he announces importantly when his brother has found a fork on the kitchen floor.

Our imperious little fellow has learned well the language of hegemony, and my husband and I were the unwitting tutors from whom he had his lessons in tyranny. I understand that such lessons are inevitable, that "No" is the reasonable response to a request for a supper consisting exclusively of Easter candy, that "NO!" is the reasonable response to a toddler who is teetering at the top of the slide, preparing to jump off instead of sliding down.

And yet I still regret Wordsworth's truth that "nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendor in the grass." I'm proud of my toddler's growing independence, but how fondly I remember those days when all I had to do was scoop up a seraphic little baby and cover him with kisses, when I never had a single thought of setting boundaries, of establishing discipline, of saying "No."


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