I remember when my son learned to say “No.” The moment haunts my dreams.
Much like the discovery of lying, when a child learns to say “no,” it’s another step on the road to having a teenager. Another step on the road from merely “keeping your offspring alive” to actually “raising a human being.” Another step on the road from having low blood pressure and a healthy head of hair to looking, and heart-attacking, like Roger Sterling.
As a new parent with grand ideas of how you’ll raise the perfect child and do everything right, you initially try to limit how often you say “no” in the hopes that your kid won’t pick up on its power and start wielding it himself. But he does. He certainly has in my house.
And now it’s no longer about avoiding no; it’s about reclaiming it. Because these days, the word is all his.
There are only so many ways to say no without actually saying the word. Suddenly, somewhere around his second birthday, you have no choice but to say it, or, more accurately, to bark it at your kid. Because at first it’s less the understanding of the word that makes it effective, but the intensity of your tone. And once you’ve barked it once, there’s no turning back. Soon, you’re howling it, non-stop, all the time, every day.
Until, eventually, your beautiful child throws it back in your face.
Discipline is not an easy thing to instill, especially with a willful toddler whose entire existence is based on acquiring independence, and especially when you have no idea what you’re doing. He’s too young, and it’s the wrong era, for spanking. Time outs don’t work, though we continue to try them. And we’re still working on our “voices.” We’re still working on everything.
Meanwhile, he has his voice down pat. It’s loud and whiny and defiant and constant. It’s a never-ending barrage of “No!” around here as he refuses to do what we tell him to do. If he’s not actually saying no, he’s performing “no” in an elaborate pantomime of flailing and jumping up and down and planking and running away and generally ignoring us.
Controlling my frustration is getting harder and harder in the face of such blatant insubordination and so help me God you will sit in time-out straight through dinner and into bedtime if you don’t step in line do I make myself clear? I sound like the assistant principal in The Breakfast Club! This is what the terrible twos have wrought.
The best part about my son’s refusal to do anything we ask, i.e., eat his dinner; clean up his toys; brush his teeth; take his bath; let go of Mommy’s iPhone; stop standing on the couch; turn off his keyboard; stop yelling at Daddy; stop yelling at Mommy; stop yelling; stop; and so on; are his explanations for those refusals, which is actually just one single explanation repeated over and over: “I want to!” Which is admirable – apparently he’s a hedonist, so more power to him – but just not practical for a three-foot-tall nincompoop with no awareness of how the world works.
Letting a toddler do whatever they want is not a recipe for successful parenting, unless you want to not be a parent anymore real quick.
So when he explains, calmly and rationally (sarcasm!), that he wants to do something idiotic and dangerous and unhealthy and/or simply loud and annoying, we counter with “no,” and he demonstrates his dissent with a scream and a stomping of his feet and his own chorus of noes, until our living room sounds like an Amy Winehouse concert and I am about ready to shoot some heroin.
Long story short: No has stopped cutting it for us. He has defused the word through his constant, flagrant use of it, and simultaneously rendered our words largely powerless. And so we’ve come full circle.
The only way for us to reclaim the word “No” is to use it less than ever, and to nip his use of it in the bud by enacting a program of zero tolerance. At the first sign of defiance, it’s time-out city for the little terrorist. Hopefully, he’ll figure out that being isolated and ignored is no fun, and slowly but surely our voices and our words and, eventually, our “No!”‘s will be all that’s needed to command his respect.
And if all that doesn’t work, I’ve been practicing the Harrison Ford finger of doom.