Monday, July 27, 2009

If He Says No, It Means a Thousand Times No

Westley has learned to say "no." He's been shaking his head "no" for months, but he didn't actually say the word until a few days ago. Along with "book," it's a word he pronounces perfectly every time, although sometimes his toddler accent makes it sound like there's a Y in there: "nyo!" It's quickly becoming one of his favorite words, and it's kind of empowering. For me.

I suck at saying no. I'm sure I was a typical no-happy toddler, but I either grew out of the word (after rediscovering it in middle school, of course) or lost my familiarity with it somewhere. I've said yes to work, to sex, to ideas that I did not want simply because I didn't feel like saying "no" was an option. The notion that someone could just say no--to drugs or anything else--seems laughable to me, because in my experience, it's never worked that way. There's no "just" about it: saying "no" can be hard.

The ironic thing, of course, is that a big part of my job as a mother is to say no: "No, it's bedtime now"; "No, you can't climb on the TV bench"; "No, big scissors are not for little boys." But having it as part of my daily routine doesn't make saying it any easier. And it certainly doesn't make it more fun. Sometimes I get to the end of the day and want to cry, because it feels like all I did all day was tell Westley "no" ten thousand times. I know I let Westley do things that another mother might not, simply because, if it's not an issue of health and safety, it's easier let him play in my underwear drawer or to read the same book six times in a row. I'd rather clean up the mess or deal with the repetition than hear myself sounding like The Enemy of Fun.

My relationship with "no" is problematic, to say the least. Being conscious of that helps. Having a child in need of boundaries helps more. But having a child who says "no"--and I realize that I'm probably all alone out on my limb, here--is really awesome.

A few months ago, Rob and Westley and I were visiting Rob's parents and grandmother, and Westley had a tantrum. Not a huge one--just one of the mini-meltdowns that's relatively easily soothed by having mom hold him and reflect his feelings back: "You didn't like that! You're so mad! You say no, no, no--"

"There's a word you don't need to teach him," Rob's grandmother interjected.

I just kept addressing my squirming toddler, but I remember thinking at her, You're wrong about that.

"No" is important. Crucial, even. It's a power word. It can express "I don't care for that plan," and "Get the fuck away from me!" And while I certainly don't enjoy hearing a cranky child say "no" to me over and over when I'm trying to cook a meal or change a diaper or kiss my husband, I love that Westley says it. It's a good reminder to me that if my little son can openly say when he doesn't want something, so can I. Westley seems to love it, too. For one thing, it's a lot easier for me to understand what he wants (or rather, doesn't want) when he says "no," as opposed to just shouting "mama" at me.

"Can you tell he's two?" a mom said to me at the park one day about her own son. "'No' is his favorite word."

I think if you're little and you've got to pick a favorite word, "no" is a pretty good one. After all, the world hands you a lot of nos when you're a toddler; it's got to feel good to give some of that no right back. Even if you still have to get your diaper changed and go to bed on time.