One-Bit Language

I’ve heard often that toddler’s favorite word is “No!” – and it’s appearance is a big landmark of the Terrible Twos. Lev doesn’t say “no” yet, but he shakes his head in the standard “no” way. And he does it a lot. It is his standard response to any question i.e. “do you want your diaper changed?” No! (head shaking no) “Do you want to sit in your high chair?” No! (i.e. head shake) “Do you want some avocado?” “No!” …. and so on. But there is something they didn’t tell me about the Terrible Two “No!” toddler: its so cute. Maybe its because he isn’t actually yelling “No!” yet, but merely shaking his head, but I find it utterly adorable.

Lacking All Conviction

It may be partly because he clearly hasn’t developed any courage to his convictions. His “no’s” are not very final. “Do you want to go to the potty, Lev?” He’ll stand in the corner of the bathroom shaking his head for ten or twenty seconds — and then wander over and sit on the potty. It is more like he wants to assert the option to refuse, rather than actually refuse. One of the best ways to get him to do something is to praise his “nos!” — to tell him how wonderful and adorable it is that he can say “no,” what a great boy he is, etc. etc. — and then ask him to do it again. Or not even. Then he’ll just do it. If I treat his “no’s” like some wonderful new trick he’s learned, deserving of much adulation, then after receiving that validation most of the underlying stubbornness melts away. (I mentioned this to Arthur Gleckler, a friend of ours who has managed people at Google, and he said “I wish it stayed that easy!”)

Lacking Information

I was hopeful that his new “no”-saying ability would yield useful information. For instance: he’s in his high chair, and I’m not sure what to feed him: it would be very useful to be able to ask “do you want corn?” “do you want bunnies?” “do you want blueberries?”, and so on, and get a yes-or-no answer to each question. Then I wouldn’t have to waste time preparing food he wasn’t going to eat. The problem is, the answer is always no. Unfortunately, a one bit language doesn’t carry much information. There was one point where I thought he said “yes” once in the stream of “no’s”, which excited me particularly since the suspected “yes” was to the avocado, which was once again slowly turning from ripe to rotten on the counter (his avocado boycott was back)… but after I hopefully cut it open he rejected the bite. However, he cried when I took it away… apparently he wanted to play with it. Even a language with a two-state bit carries frustratingly little useful content.

Still Cute

I wonder why I think he’s so cute when he says “no.” Essentially, I’m pleased with the indications that he is developing his own will. Of course, there are difficulties — it is much harder to dress him when he refuses each item of clothing, individually, for instance. There are also downers — for instance, it used to happen when I stopped my bike to check on him, he’d give me a little smile. Or else he’d be in a trance: “oh, its you there mommy? Were you asking me something?” and then he’d snap out of it and smile at me. But now when I stop and ask him “how’re you doing kiddo? are you OK?” the answer is the same as it is for every other question: “No!”

As I was saying, its hard to get useful information from a one-bit language.