NO

June 24, 2006 at 5:21 pm (Uncategorized)

Those of you with children probably won’t be shocked to read that my two-and-a-half year-old son Andrew’s favorite word is “no.” He says it approximately 8,000 times a day. I’ve riffled through about a dozen child-rearing books and have learned that “combativeness in attitude” is fairly common among the three-foot tall and under set. The universal suggestion of these books is to ride out this phase. Like the joys of teething and the tensions of potty training, it, too, will pass. Or so they say.

It’s nice to know my kid is normal, but, still, I’m getting tired of the N-word. What’s especially irritating is that Andrew seems to utilize the word without even thinking. For instance, I’ll ask, “Do you have to go to the potty?” and he’ll produce a bored “no” in a microsecond, but one minute later, he’ll be standing in a pee puddle. Ask him if he’s thirsty, and he’ll say “no.” It doesn’t matter that it’s been five hours since he’s had a sip of water. “Do you want to paint?” No. “Do you want to call Daddy and say hello?” No. And so on. I’m thinking he could star in a revision of Maurice Sendack’s Pierre. Instead of telling his parents, “I don’t care,” the new main character, let’s call him Andre, could learn that answering “no” to every question will likewise get him digested by a lion.

Part of the problem is that Jay and I provide Andrew the opportunity to say “no.” There’s an old saw I picked up while Jay was in law school that you should never ask a witness a question in court that you don’t already know the answer to. The same goes with parenting. We would hear a lot less “no,” if we asked far fewer questions. Instead of saying, “Do you want to come in now and eat dinner, Andrew?” when he is clearly blissful in his sandbox, we should just order him to come in. Sure, he’d kick up a fuss, but at least then we wouldn’t have to try to convince him to change his mind after he predictably says “no.” There’s nothing sadder than a grown-up wheedling with a toddler: “But we’re having your favorite dinner – hot dogs and potato chips and orange soda.  And daddy will juggle while you eat and mommy will stand on her head.” It would be much more sensible to eradicate choice from his mental vocabulary. But, like other parents of liberal leaning, I think we are a little uncomfortable with implementing what could be construed (not least by us) as fascistic control of our offspring.

“No” is an extremely powerful word. It’s a conversational show-stopper. When a weaselly little man at a bar offers to buy a gorgeous woman a drink, and all she tells him is “no,” she’s doing more than responding to his question in the negative. She’s establishing a power relationship. When you beg your boss for an extra day of vacation and she tells you “no” without explaining why, you instantly get the message that you are a peon, not just that you can’t have the additional time off.  Andrew’s not dumb – he already has picked up on many of the language cues that rule us as adults. By saying “no,” Andrew is asserting himself as an individual. I’m sure he understands that “no” brings him power along with telling us he doesn’t want to do something. It must be almost fun for him to tell the people who rule him – his parents – “no.” It must make him feel like the bomb.

Yet unlike my son, “no” is a word and a concept that I am remarkably bad at using myself. When people ask me for something – my time, my skills, money – I almost always say “yes.” It doesn’t matter if I don’t have the money or the time, because I feel weirdly compelled to make people happy, no matter how distant from me they are. I am unfailingly polite: to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on my door and won’t go away, to telemarketers who phone during dinner, to people who are rude to me, to friends who ask for a favor that I don’t really have the time or the energy to do. The funny thing, though, is that it would be better for them and better for me just to say “no” and leave it at that. Then no one would waste their time. But I hate dropping this verbal bomb.

I am of a mixed mind when it comes to Andrew’s “combativeness in attitude.” Part of me feels proud that my little man is strong-willed. I want him to grow up knowing what he wants. I don’t want him to feel, as I sometimes do, pressured into doing things he doesn’t feel comfortable with. There is enough nonsense and badness in this world, that being able to say “no” to it loudly and clearly is a sign of moral rectitude. But another side of me thinks that we should focus on inculcating flexibility as much as we let him say “no.” It’s not just that I’m tired of everything taking seven times longer with him than it should because of his innate two-year old orneriness. It’s that a key part of living is learning to compromise – not just with other people, but with the situations we are given. A person who always says “no” to what is not purely his choosing won’t last long in the “real world” of work, love, and illness.

In any event, it probably doesn’t matter what we actually say to Andrew about “no,” or even if we stop asking him questions and just bully him into doing what we want. As in other realms of his personality development, he will pick up on what he sees us do much more than on how we lecture him. As forthright as I tell him to be, if he watches me waffle with someone instead of saying “no,” he’ll likely end up a waffler too. It’s almost disturbing how much he learns from us. Watching him parrot an expression of mine – complete with inflections and hand gestures – feels right out of the Twilight Zone.

He’s probably absorbing a ton of information about illness right now. In this phase of brain development, which he probably won’t be able to conjure up later as memories, he’s learning about dealing with sickness. I try not to think about this too often, but I know that I am modeling for him how to act if he ever develops a chronic disease, or perhaps how to act when he comes down with the flu. No pressure, right?

The poor guys is having to deal with me being sick more than usual lately. Right after a medical trip to Philadelphia, where he knew that “Mommy had important doctors’ visits,” I came down with pneumonia. I’m still bedridden, still coughing like I belong in a tuberculosis ward, and still noticeably absent from his day-to-day life. He misses me, and I can see that. Today he and Jay went to a birthday party of a friend, but Andrew was adamant that he wanted to stay home with his train and Mommy. I’m glad to know I’ve risen to the same level as his beloved Thomas the Tank Engine. He likes nothing more lately than to lie in bed next to me and stroke my hair. It’s a little weird, but very adorable.

Like my cranky son when he’s asked to leave the park, I want to say “NO!!” to the pneumonia and “NO!!” to the sarcoidosis that makes it more likely I’ll get these secondary infections. Today I wanted nothing more than to ride my bike with Jay and Andrew to the Farmer’s Market and then go off to the birthday party. “Do you want to stay home on a beautiful day and cough?” Why, NO, I don’t. But the sorry truth is that there are some demons you can’t chase off by telling them “no.” Getting out of bed would have only made me sicker – and ultimately taken me away from Andrew for a longer period of time. So I told him I was sorry, that soon I would be well again and that soon we would be playing in the yard and scampering downstairs to see the train set. He didn’t look convinced.

But just as much as I believe it is necessary for me to exist within the parameters of my health and my body, I also think it’s important to push at those same boundaries at other times. There are days when I am exhausted and running a fever, and I say, “To hell with it,” and take Andrew to the park or for a walk up the hill behind our house to watch airplanes. There are days when I want nothing more than to sleep, and I tell myself, “no,” because my life belongs on a broader stage than the bed and there is only so much I can give this illness without putting up a fight.

Today, I was feeling tremendously sorry for myself because I am still sick and because two weeks in bed seem to have done little to improve my condition (and on top of it, I have the nastiest case of thrush in my mouth from taking so many antibiotics with a compromised immune system). All I wanted to do was grab a bag of potato chips and curl up in front of the TV, watch the most brainless program I could find, and become the living embodiment of sloth. But on occasions like these, I have to say “no.” There can be no waffling with this. I don’t want Andrew to peek at me from outside the room and think, “Gee, Mom sure is lazy and depressed. Why is she always laying around getting potato chip crumbs everywhere? I’m sick of her being sick.” So, instead of watching a cooking show, I’ve read to Andrew with him snuggled in bed next to me, even though my voice still sounds like it’s being filtered through gravel. When he scurried off, I read my book. (Somehow reading something just feels more productive than vegging out in front of the TV.)

Anyway, with the thrush in my mouth I wouldn’t really be able to taste the potato chips. And I guess, truth me told, maybe I’m not such a waffler as all that. Andrew’s a chip off the old block. I’m prone to plenty of “combativeness in attitude” myself.

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