Last week my son learnt the word ‘no’ and he has been practising in context as much as he can. If an unfamiliar cat approaches him he shouts ‘no, no, no’ loudly and backs away. When dinner is offered to him it is met with a stern ‘no’ and a handshake. If he is told it is bedtime we get loud ‘noooo’s’ as we lead him out of the room. Perhaps the saddest and the cutest was a particularly bad and painful teething episode, when he just walked around the house all day, holding his ear repeating ‘oh no’ and pitifully sobbing.
With this word comes a new power. For the first time in his life he is now able to negate something we offer. He can assert what he wants and more importantly what he doesn’t. If the ‘no’ is not made clear enough to us, we are met with a whopper tantrum. Like any parent, this sudden transition has been a shock to our systems. There is however, something quite wonderful about it all – he is becoming his own person.
I keep having to remind myself of this whenever we butt heads over something. My usually pretty compliant boy is now challenging some of our rules and testing whether our ‘no’ or ‘stop’ really means something to us. When he is asked not to do something (like chew on power cords) he looks back at me with a smile, makes sure I’m watching and has another go. It is infuriatingly cute and I have to remind myself that he is only testing his boundaries.
The other day I watched the ‘Life at 9’ episode and there was a sequence that stopped me short. Did you see it? If you haven’t come across this Australian documentary series, check it out on Iview. The series has followed children and their development for 9 years and is part of a wider landmark Australian study on childhood. I find it fascinating.
Back to the sequence: In an experiment, a group of the children were given paints and instructed to paint whatever they wanted but only using black and brown. The kids grumbled about this arbitrary rule, but all stuck to it, even though they disliked it and thought it silly. One girl – Shine – finished her brown painting, but in a quiet act of defiance left a small yellow fingerprint as a signature on the bottom of the painting. I was so moved by this act. It was rebellion, but a respectful quiet rebellion. She could have slashed her yellow paint right across the page in a public act of defiance, but instead she quietly and firmly asserted her independent thinking.
Watching that act, I thought about how often adults make rules that seem ridiculous or arbitrary to the young child. They are subject to rules that can change from parent to parent, or from situation to situation. It can seem unfair. The clever child will work out quickly when a rule is meaningless.
And so today I am looking at my son’s behaviour in a new light. I’m reassessing the rules we have created and refining them down to ones that are really important for his age. I’ve also done another sweep across the house eliminating the need for some rules by tidying up the things that may tempt him anyway.
I am also looking into safe ways that he can assert himself. I am factoring in the inevitable ‘no’s’ and giving him some choices in what he does. Meal times are a test ground for this new found freedom as we have started to offer him more variety on his plate, allowing him to choose from the selection. Today he chose strawberries and chicken to eat for lunch, this may not be the most balanced meal, but my usually fussy eater happily wolfed it all down. He even came back to his lunchbox seeking more.
I can’t avoid him rebelling in some way as a toddler and later as a teen. Instead, I want to teach him that he can respectfully reject ideas and assert himself. That gentle assertion achieves more than angry lashing out. Rebelling is important for society and for the development of young independence. I’m just hoping that when he is older and the stakes are higher he will be less inclined to be a furious rebellious slasher of yellow paint, or an unquestioning follower, but rather a gentle, questioning, respectful dabber of yellow.