Friday, April 12, 2013

An Hour of "Yes."

My 3.5 year old son is going through a defiant streak this week (oh God, please let it just be for this week!) where he is just out of sorts and unhappy with the world.  I can sympathize.  It’s  been the kind of week when I just want to howl at the world until it bends to my will, or at least allows me to take a nap.  

Tonight, while his father made dinner, I decided that he and I would go for a walk to try to, as a friend’s mother puts it, “Blow the stink off of him.”  As we left the house and walked down the drive, he pointed to the right and said “Let’s go this way?”  Sure, why not?  So I agreed.  A block later, we came to the first intersection and he pointed straight ahead. “Let's go this way?”  Again, I nodded.  Yes, if we could walk on the side of the road.  He happily complied.

Within a few yards, we came to a point where we needed to either turn around,  take a path through the back side of a parking lot, or head toward the main road.  The sidewalk for the main road picks up here, so when my son pointed toward the highway and said “Can we keep going?”  I agreed, as long as we walked on the sidewalk.  He nodded agreeably and veered to the walk.

Ten minutes of not hearing the word “No,” and some much needed fresh air, had magically transformed him back into his sunny, agreeable self.  I decided that for the remainder of the hour, so long as it was reasonable, I wouldn’t say “No.”  We walked out to the highway and I let him pick which direction we turned.  After giving it some serious consideration, he turned thoughtfully to the right and pointed.  We headed north up the sidewalk, passing an auto repair shop with a display of tires outside.  He reached out his hand, clearly thought about this action, and looked back at me expectantly.  

 “I want to touch the tires,” he explained.

“Okay,” I agreed.  He ran his hand over the tread of one and then slapped his hand against it.

“It’s hard!” he exclaimed.  I concurred.  They need to be hard, they hold up the whole car on the road!

“We don’t throw wheels in the house.”

“We don’t throw anything in the house,” I amended “except the occasional pillow.”  He giggled.  We walked a little further on and came to a sign pole that he reached out and smacked his hand against. 

“I don’t touch the sign,” he said, clearly expecting a reprimand.

“You can touch that one.  It’s pretty tough.”  He nodded, considering.  We walked along, chatting about the cars going by, and in another block, he asked to walk in the grass, pointing to the space between a bank and the sidewalk.  I agreed, and we wandered through the grassy space, cutting across the corner to the next street.  As we passed the bank, he pointed to the door and announced “I want to go in the door.”  Hmmm.  By now I was committed to not saying “no” if I didn’t have to, but it was after 6:00, dinner was about ready at home, and we were clearly not going into the bank.  I considered for a moment.

“Honey, the bank is closed.  They locked the doors for the night.” I explained.  He thought this over for a moment, and then nodded as we continued on our way.  As we turned the corner toward home, he bent to pick up a pine cone.  My first instinct was to scold him to put it down, but I waited a heartbeat or two to think it over.  He was going to have to wash his hands before dinner anyway; what could the pinecone hurt?  I ignored it.  A few feet later, he bent to inspect a much more bedraggled specimen.  As he bent to pick it up, I opened my mouth to say “No!” but what came out was “Honey, that one’s really muddy and dirty.”  He poked it with his finger and wrinkled his nose.

“Ick!” he exclaimed, giggling, and walked away from the muddy cone.

“I want some milk!” He announced a few seconds later.  I nodded.

“Ok, but we need to go home for that.”  I agreed.

“Okay.  Let’s go home.”  And off we set.   

As we approached our own drive, he insisted we turn another direction.  Instead of saying no, dinner was about ready, I reminded him that he had asked for milk. He immediately struck out toward the front door.  After I shepherded him into the bathroom to wash his hands and back to the table, he turned to me and asked hopefully,

“Can we go for a walk again?”   I assured him that tomorrow, we would do just that.

Not saying “no” for that hour taught me a lesson.  It’s unrealistic, and unwise, to never say “No” to a child, and if he had asked for something unreasonable or unsafe, the answer would indeed have been a firm “No!”  As we left the house, I had reminded him that he needed to hold my hand the whole time.  He never once objected, or I would have had to say no.  That’s my job—to keep him safe and teach him to follow the rules.

But sometimes I say no, as all parents do, because it’s the easy answer.  Because it’s what we think we should say.  When we left the driveway, I had intended to turn left, and if I had been distracted or annoyed, I might have said “no” when he asked to go to the right.  When he asked to walk in the grass or touch the tires, I might have said “no” out of habit because these were not our yard or his things, but there was no harm in saying “yes.”  Those tires were destined to far tougher treatment than the pat of a 3 year old boy.  That grass had probably never been trod on by more than a handful of humans before.  Deciding I wasn’t going to say “no” prompted me to consider these things before giving him an answer.  It forced me to think of a different response to the bank door; one that allowed him to puzzle over the locked door and come to the “no” of it on his own—a critical thinking lesson on an evening walk around the neighborhood.

No one likes to feel as though their life is beyond their control, but when you’re three, the whole universe is often beyond your control.  Most of that is by necessity, but it doesn’t always have to be.  I could be more thoughtful in my answers and give him the chance to come to the “no” on his own, by his choice, some of the time.  If I model thinking over my responses before I give them, he might just learn to do the same.

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