I’m working with a little one right now who is just turning two years old. Like many other children his age he is discovering the power of “no”. Being told “no” all the time can obviously become frustrating for his caregivers. However, what I’m now starting to wonder is how frustrating it is for him.
He’s going through a transition phase developmentally in which he is learning that he is his own person and can make his own choices. How scary and confusing that must be for him. I have noticed that although he exercises his ability to say “no” regularly he doesn’t always seem pleased or certain about it. Thinking back to other toddlers that I’ve worked with, I’ve noticed a similar trend. Although they will often say “no”, sometimes they indicate through their body language, facial expressions and even their tone, that they don’t neccessarily mean “no” and sometimes they say it even when they mean “yes”. I remember this used to be a regular occurence at snack time, toddlers practicing saying “no” and then showing displeasure at not receiving more snack.
This observation of this particular child’s seeming conflict with his use of the word “no” reminded me of how mindful we need to be in our observations and responses to toddlers and young children. It can be easy to see “no” as a frustrating response or even defiant behaviour when it shouldn’t be. We need to support toddlers as they develop their independence and support their need to begin to make decisions. We can do this by establishing an environment that is safe for their exploration, one which will limit the amount that we need to tell them “no”. We can also do this by providing them with simple closed choices, such as “would you like toast or cereal?” Allowing them to make small choices, and therefore providing them with manageable amounts of control will help them to feel safe and secure as well as to exert their growing independence.
Also, next time you’re with a toddler, take a moment to imagine how it would feel to discover you suddenly have power and control over things you didn’t before. What a great responsibility that would be and how overwhelming that would feel. In this stage of development, which Erikson referred to as “autonomy vs shame and doubt”, toddlers are experiencing the push and pull of wanting to explore and to be independent while at the same time wanting to feel safe and secure with their caregivers. Therefore we need to be mindful of how we respond in these situations so that we can support their explorations appropriately.
I hope that next time you hear “no” you’ll take a deep breath and try to keep these things in mind before you respond.