The Story of “NO”

The idea for this post was suggested to me by my friend Alice in early October. She had noticed that in many books she was reading to her daughter, the word NO, or the denial of permission, was used as a plot device. Alice mentioned Robert Munsch’s use of “No,” NNNNno,” and “Nononononono” as a device in many of his stories.

I didn’t know what to do with this idea when she proposed it to me. I suggested that she write a guest post, but I suppose that, given that she was working full-time, AND in her third trimester with her second child, AND the mother of a busy a one-year old, she just didn’t have the time.

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over this idea ever since, and these are the musings I have come up with.

This is what one Robert Munsch story (Thomas’ Snowsuit) would look like without the word “No.”

One day, Thomas’ mother got him a nice, new, brown snowsuit. And when Thomas saw that snowsuit, he said, “That is the ugliest thing I have seen in my life.” But he put it on anyway. THE END.

See? No story at all. This is the story of my life, by the way. “Oh no! – Not the lavender store-brand running shoes with velcro fastenings from Kmart! But I have no others… so I will wear them.” THE END.

What is no, and why do toddlers make such copious use of it? No is an assertion of selfhood, right? When you’re a baby, you do whatever is done to you. You eat the food that comes at you, you wear the itchy sweater that your Auntie Matilda made for you. But when you get a bit older, you realize that there is this powerful word that makes grown-ups stop. No.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to wear the sweater, but it means that (if you’re lucky) the grown-ups will give you reasons to wear it. “Put this sweater on. It’s cold outside” or “Put this sweater on and smile for the camera so we can send Aunt Matilda a picture. You can take it off as soon as you’ve taken this picture. I promise.”

“NO” doesn’t mean that you don’t have to eat your broccoli, but it does mean that grown-ups may find creative ways to encourage you to eat it. They might tell you that you can be a giraffe. They might start telling you how delicious it tastes with cheese sauce. Or, if you live in my house, you might be told that it’s OK not to eat the broccoli, but if you don’t, you MIGHT get scurvy. And that would really be too bad. Because then your teeth would fall out…

What I am saying, I guess, is that the word “No” becomes the basis for an explanation, and also for a story. “No” inspires persuasion, tall tales, narratives.

Obedient children make boring characters, too. Here, for example, is the story of Peter Rabbit‘s sisters.

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail lived with their mother under the root of a very large fir tree. One day, their mother said “I’m going out. You may play in the meadow or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there. He was made into a pie by Mrs McGregor.”* Their mother took her basket and went to do her shopping. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail went down the lane and gathered blackberries. When their mother returned, they had bread, and milk, and blackberries for supper. THE END.

*Now there’s a story…

Peter Rabbit doesn’t say “No” to his mother, but his disobedience is a willful negation of his mother’s wishes. His disobedience is the story. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail’s story might be the moral, but it isn’t interesting. Readers might want to be the good sisters, eating their delicious meal at the end of the day, but they don’t want to read about them.

Many parents (including myself) would doubtless like to shut down the “No” emerging from their children’s mouths. We’d love to have angelic faces beaming, with “Yes” emerging from cherubic lips. But that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? And there would be precious few stories to share.

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Knock on Wood

So, as the title might inform you, this story will likely come back to bite me one day. I am about to be judgmental, and one of the things I have tried not to be in my life is judgmental – of other parents and their parenting, anyway. Because bad things happen to good people. Compassion is more useful than criticism.

I hope this story comes back to me as mildly as the gastro I willed upon my child by saying (out loud) to a room full of mothers whose children had recently been sick, “Owen hasn’t been sick since last winter… Well, except for pink eye.” I heard myself say it and I immediately knocked on some plywood cubbies (we were at the daycare). Sure enough, Saturday night, Owen did indeed vomit. Luckily, he threw up just once, and I was (whee!) out of the house.

So the story I am about to tell takes place on an airplane. Duncan, Owen and I left our home very early yesterday morning, in a snowstorm, and made it to the airport on time. Incidentally, it’s OK to bring milk, juice, or water for a 23 month old, but not for anyone two or older. So we threw away a juice box because it was over 100ml and Owen is old enough to be a terrorist. He was allowed to keep his water because he had been drinking it in the car and the security guard estimated that its level had fallen below 100ml.

Anyway, we got on the plane without incident and were seated behind a father and his daughter. The daughter appeared to be Owen’s age (in the twos or threes, anyway). She was wearing a violet dress and ruby slippers. Her brother (seven or eight) sat across the aisle. Now, given the snowstorm, the pilots were delayed. There was an accident of some kind that had slowed down traffic to the extent that the pilots could not make it to the airport on time. Some poor pilots, who were at home on their day off, were phoned, and they rushed to the airport as fast as their snow tires could take them.

For half an hour, all was well. The seat backs were equipped with videos; the children were amused. Water was passed around by apologetic flight attendants. But about a half an hour into what was to be a 1.5 hour wait, the little girl in front of us decided that she was unhappy. She proceeded to scream, shrilly, and almost uninterrupted, for the next 2 hours. It was a combination of “I want to go home” and “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!”

Here’s where the judgment comes in, and for this I will get my comeuppance.

The father coddled her. There there. Don’t cry. Hug. Sweet daughter. He fed her tantrum. Every now and then he would speak harshly to her, but he never ignored her, never let her cry herself out, never tried to distract her. He watched her like a spectacle.

Owen was quite sympathetic. “She wants to go home,” he said to me with big eyes.

We had a couple of Robert Munsch books with us (thanks Rebecca!), so I passed them forward to the father after a while, thinking that he might want to distract her with them. But instead of reading them to her, he asked her if she wanted to read them, to which she (of course) screamed “NO!” I wanted to tell him – just start reading! She’ll get interested!

But I didn’t, because it’s not like you can really get involved in someone else’s kid’s tantrum, right?

Each of the flight attendants tried their best. One offered Twizzlers. Owen accepted the candy gratefully, but the little girl kept right on screaming. Another flight attendant, after the girl had been screaming for over an hour, actually told the father to ignore his child – that he was feeding her temper. I was so impressed that she said that, but of course he did not listen.

At one point, I started reading the stories to Owen, and I (so crafty) read in a fairly loud voice (partly to drown out the screaming, but also to see if I could get her interested). Didn’t her little face peek through the seats and start to listen? So I would flip the pictures her way, and for the duration of almost two entire Robert Musch stories, we had peace. Then, of course, I ran out of books, and she started screaming again.

In the midst of all this, Owen turned to me and said, “I smell poop.”

I asked him if he had to go, since the gastro he had over the weekend had turned into “there is poop coming out of my bum” diarrhea on Sunday. Oh, I’m sorry. Was that too much information?

Since there was a baby behind us, I assumed it was he, and told Owen not to talk about it.

“But it smells bad.”

Let’s feel compassion for the poor father, now. It was his flailing, screaming daughter who had pooped in her diaper, right before takeoff (of course) and on a turbulent flight on which no one could get out of their seats. Also, he was so apologetic and so clueless. Duncan and I wondered whether he had ever been alone with his children before. And it’s all very well to ignore your children’s tantrums when you’re outside, or in a house with rooms – but on an airplane? When you are strapped into your seat?

At the very end of the flight, the son, who had been angelic throughout, started to vomit. Violently. The poor father had the (now sleeping) daughter on his lap (despite warnings of a rough landing from the flight crew) and pulled his son to the seat beside him to comfort him while he threw up. And I think I speak for many on board that flight when I say that a lot of the judgment evaporated and turned into pure compassion when we realized that none of us would have traded places with that poor man for anything in the world.

There it is. My moral? Now that I’ve told this story, it’s coming for me.

Maybe not? Knock on wood.

Old Enough to Reach the Snacks

Every afternoon, when I pick up Owen at daycare, I make a quick detour to check his attendance book. His teacher is wonderful at reporting the little things he says, verbatim, so I get a taste of what he’s doing and saying even if I am not present. Occasionally, we also get notes about him hitting or pushing his friends, which is less welcome news.

Usually, Owen reports that he had a good day. “I didn’t hit anybody. I was nice to all my friends. That’s the way to do it!”

Indeed.

In his book this week, there was a report that he had been playing coffee grinder and car (at the same time). The connection? The car needed coffee to run, because it was a grown up.

Owen is still obsessed with growing up and living in his own house (when he will be old enough to “reach the snacks” and make his own breakfast). Coffee is one of those rites of passage he associates with adulthood, rightly so, I guess.

Owen tells me that when he grows up, he still wants to live in the same house with me. When I tell him that he might not want to, he seems puzzled. Wait and see, I say. You can decide then. At daycare, he told his educator that when he grew up he would get a new Mummy because he would move into his own house. He doesn’t get it but, of course, his educator and I chuckled over his head. We’ve been having something of an Oedipal household lately, but more on that another time.

In the car on the way home, Owen spotted a star.

“There’s a star in the sky! A little baby star! But it isn’t wearing a diaper.”

“No…”

“But that would be silly because stars don’t have any legs, so they can’t wear diapers.”

He still insists that he is going to have a brother and a sister in 5 days. We still tell him “If you’re lucky.”

My computer has just signalled to me that I have been checking Pinterest more than my own blog, so I am going to stop dithering and publish this. The end.