“Aww, she’s so cute! But just you wait until she starts saying no…”
I’ve heard this from a few people now. The implication? That babies are only adorable when – and perhaps because – they can do nothing but comply. When they are essentially blobs, distant versions of the actual people they will become.
I wholeheartedly reject this notion on four counts (although I do agree that my daughter is adorable).
First, I reject the idea that her dissention is fundamentally incompatible with her lovability. This is what the “but” in people’s warnings imply – she’s cute now, but that will change once she starts being more vocal about her preferences: essentially becoming more of a person. As a child, when I expressed dislike, I was often told that I was being “opinionated:” a label that triggered both outrage and shame, leading me to feel shut down and unheard. Later on, I came to wonder why I was labeled “opinionated” simply for expressing an opinion. For children, expressing an opinion should never come at the cost of feeling loved and accepted unconditionally, and children are lovable whether or not they agree with the current state of affairs. Let’s be clear; I’m not advocating infinite permissiveness of all children’s behaviors, nor am I suggesting that children should always get their way. Rather, parents can disagree with children’s behavior but still honor the underlying feeling. As a colleague once told me, as parents we have two hands; with one hand we hold the feeling, and with the other we hold the line. Parents need not accept behavior that is unacceptable, but it is vital to accept the people our children are. Which means accepting their dissent and opposition.
Secondly, even though she is just a baby, she has already started saying no! I don’t mean that she is a crazily early talker. “No” is more than a word – it is a choice, a setting of boundaries and establishment of preference. And this, my baby has in spades. She tells me, in so many words, “No, I’m not ready to be put down yet.” “No, I don’t want to take my hand out of my mouth so you can put it in my sleeve.” “No, I don’t want to take a nap.” And while I might either agree or disagree with some of the things she rejects (you can probably guess which one I object to), I still honor her “no” in my words and actions. I draw this attitude from the RIE and Mindful Parenting approaches – that my baby, however blob-like, is first and foremost a person, and because she is a person she deserves my respect. This means I tell her what’s happening, ask for her cooperation, check for her readiness, and sometimes honor her no’s. I say sometimes because, while I acknowledge and honor her basic humanity, I cannot abdicate my role as parent, which means I must patiently weed out the no’s I can honor from the ones that are not in her best interest.
Third, if I have issues with her dissent, it’s my problem, not hers. Saying no is a sign of knowing one’s mind, of being a solid individual. This is highly threatening to someone who is not secure in his or her self, usually triggering either emotional cut off (making threats, sending the child to his or her room, becoming enraged) or enmeshment (denying the child’s dissent – “No, you can’t be hungry/cold/tired/etc.”). It is my child’s fundamental human right to disagree with whatever she likes, and I honor this right. Any issues that emerge as a result have more to do with my insecurity as a person and a parent, and above all, my child requires, if not demands, my solidity and security as both her parent and leader.
Finally, I have no fear or trepidation about the day when my child’s protests increase in volume and intensity. Of course they will! In spite of my best efforts, for these first few years of her life, she will have precious little say in what happens to her. Wouldn’t you want to scream NO at the top of your lungs for a good long while after years of being told incessantly what to eat, wear, and do? I should hope so, as it’s a sign of a healthy developing ego and independent self. “No” means control, choice, and power: all qualities that I passionately want my child to develop. I want her to be able to assert both powerful assent and dissent to everything in her life: yes to blue, no to red. Yes to karate lessons, no to soccer. Yes to this college, no to that one. I want her to be able to say “no” if someone tries to touch her body in a way she does not like, or if she is asked to do something she feels uncomfortable with. I want her to know her mind and express it. How will she do any of this without “no”?
Even though I believe with deep conviction in her right to dissent, I recognize that it’s not always fun to be on the receiving end of a “no” as a parent. My child’s seemingly endless screams and screeches are testament to that. But rather than view her dissent as defiance, inconvenience, or ugliness, I choose – every day – to see it as an important aspect of her development, of her coming to know herself and her mind.
For additional reading:
- The Consent Game
- What’s so terrible?
- Minding Manners
- Minding Manners 2.0: Three ways to Embody Gratitude and Other Family Values
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!