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By Nina Pajak

At the decidedly unripe age of thirteen and a half months, my daughter has learned the word “no.”

It began peacefully enough. First she babbled it meaninglessly, even joyfully. Toddling around the apartment, picking up toys and putting them down, dancing in her high chair, all the while singing “nooo no no no noooo!” Then she began parroting the word in circumstances in which she knew she was doing something I didn’t like.

Hurling half her lunch to the dog: no no!

Taking the initiative to climb the stairs unattended: no no no!

She said it so seriously, with such wide eyes and genuine concern. It was sweet and hilarious. And I thought, hey! If she winds up not doing those things, what’s the harm? Then it took a more meaningful, perhaps darker turn.

Stiffening her legs and refusing to allow me to put her in her high chair at mealtime: No!

Glancing dubiously at her bedroom when I ask her if she’s ready to go night night and running back to her game: Nooooo!

Witnessing her pal pick up one of her six thousand toys during a play date we hosted, and fiercely trying to snatch it away: NO NO N-N-N-N-NOOOO!

At first, I was upset. Did I do something wrong? She seems so young to be grasping both the language and concept of no. Do I overuse the word? Am I that lame, bummer, no fun, naysaying mommy?

I tried putting a personal moratorium on saying “no,” resolved to take responsibility and turn this situation around. Predictably, it lasted ten minutes. Maybe.

It’s just not possible. It’s like trying to go a whole day without saying “the” or “I”. While I’d love to employ the dog training philosophy of only positive reinforcement, it simply doesn’t work. You can’t proactively lead toddlers to make better choices, or only place them in scenarios in which they’ll have no option but to do the thing you want. No matter how many times you explain that food is for eating, dirt is for the ground, they’re still going to stick leaves in their mouths. They’re going to poke the dog in the eye in an attempt to illustrate that that is, indeed, his eye. They’re going to attempt to topple down the stairs headlong and stick their fingers in the one outlet you somehow forgot to cover or get their heads stuck in the bannister railing. There is nothing on this green Earth you can say to reverse their urges to poison, maim, or kill themselves. They are instinctively magnetized to trouble. Call it curiosity, call it the learning process, call it natural selection, call it parental training—it is what it is. Kids will be kids, and the only way to keep them safe from one minute to the next is to stay on them like white on rice and put out metaphorical (and sometimes literal) fires before they start. No is simply unavoidable.

But it’s also so much more than that. The more I considered it, the more I began to understand how incredibly empowering the word “no” can be. This is her first taste of holding any power at all. At least, any verbal power. Sure, before this she could refuse or protest in her own way, but she couldn’t express herself. And this is a power with which I want her to feel comfortable. No is how we assert ourselves. No is how we protect ourselves. No is how we define what’s important to us. Sure, there’s also power in positivity, but no is universally understood. In so many ways, you can’t have “yes” without it.

I never want my daughter to be afraid to tell someone no. I don’t want to discourage her from taking a stand on behalf of herself or someone else. I want her to grow up with confidence in her opinions and her limits. I never want her to second guess herself when she feels unsafe or needs to extract herself from a difficult situation. I have no interest in raising a girl (or a boy, for that matter) who worries about disappointing people if she doesn’t simply say yes.

This is not to say I think she needs to be empowered to horde her possessions from her friends or willfully disobey her parents. But you know, there’s only so much nuance a one year old can comprehend. We’ll get there.

Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter!

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