Is That a Yes or a No?

Profound lessons about freedom and boundaries from bumps, hugs, and beyond

Still working on this image selection quandary, but this is cool? Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Boundaries established, boundaries pushed, a chat, questions, shouting, more questions, negotiating, more shouting, another chat, hugs, more negotiating, touching each others’ noses, more hugs, verbal expressions of love, rest. Can I touch your nose?

If you have ever known a toddler, you know the dance. My son is that joyful, exhausting dance partner, the last guy on the floor at 3 a.m., the sleepover friend who wants to talk all night. He is the orb that lights up the place. And he hugs strangers. (He is not unlike his mother in this regard.)

When you walk around with him, strangers will be shocked by the hugs. You will mumble things, because my God, we are in a fucking pandemic, don’t touch that/him/her/them/it. Thank God he has learned how to bump fists, and that is thanks to Raf. But bottom line, he mostly runs in for the tackle-hug, and humans do not know what to do with these unbridled expressions of love from a relative stranger. You do not want to undo this kind of thing, necessarily, because he is 3, and this is a sweet instinct. But you also need to teach him about Covid-19, about people needing space, about asking before you touch (like we do with our noses at bedtime). Also, about his Whiteness and his maleness. For these and other reasons, you will be stressed even as you feel proud of his generous spirit.

You will also think about how you grew up, how you felt as a child, who you hugged or didn’t, what behavior was encouraged, what behavior was punished. When you think about this, you will discover that even though there is much for you to teach him, that he is your teacher, too.

About a week ago, he starting asking: Is that a yes or a no? This is a good question, and not one he got from me or his dad. With kids, you learn to recognize: a) the things they come up with themselves; b) the things they pick up from you (whoops?); and c) the things they have adopted from someone else altogether. It’s a bit weird when c happens. It means his tiny little world is expanding. This is sweet, and requires the social math of “What? But how? Is this good? Is this bad? Is it neither?” as you piece it together. You might not be able to figure it out, but you will try. You do not have control over all things anymore. (P.S. You never did!) This is more than fine. It is good.

Is that a yes or a no? is very much how toddlers think, but it is not how they use words, generally speaking. In the question is a request for boundaries, and in your answer, there is no room to hedge. They’re not asking for nuance. I like its request for clarity. These are things children need, and things adults could be better at, in general. If all goes well, I will have a long time to teach him about nuance. He lives it, knows somewhere that all things are in between. But right now, he wants clear answers. Who doesn’t?

Though I am in still some ways childlike, I have wanted to be a grown up for as long as I can remember, probably for this reason. Adulthood, it seemed to me, would afford some sense of order, prescribed by accepted norms. If you ask my therapist, it is looking like I might actually hate most of these norms! I am working on this, material for another day. For now:

After high school, I moved out of my childhood home and into a tiny four bedroom. Timing-wise in Quebec, where I was born, that means it was a bit after grade 11. So we were pretty young. My girls and I had a lot of freedom, and a lot of cats (a neighbor’s house caught fire, and we adopted her cat; the cat was pregnant, it was a whole thing). I could do whatever I wanted! But I didn’t do much crazy shit. I had a cute boyfriend who adopted one of the cats, got a job at the better of the two local alt weeklies, working for Alastair Sutherland, and I spent money on taxis to work, nutritional yeast, and rent. Not that much has changed, TBH!

Before I left home, there were very few rules that limited my physical behavior. I could date whoever, and I had no curfew. Everyone else had, if not a curfew, an expectation that they would be home by X time, or else they’d call collect from a phone booth, because that was a thing you did in the ’90s. When I asked for a curfew, my parents thought I was being funny. They probably knew what kind of kid they had. I didn’t even do drugs! Grades other than math were good! (I feel defensive about this; tested terribly but the homework was good—material for another day.)

My parents had other things going on. So I wanted rules, and they didn’t deliver. I still have mixed feelings about this, because here is what they did give me: Nuanced rules about kindness (yes); rules about showing respect for certain kinds of authority (not my favorite); rules about understanding making a difference in the world (yes); and rules about the way we talk about other people (this was good, be kind). As a young person, I skewed safe, was not reckless. So their approach to discipline was probably also fine, from a safety perspective, and a being-a-decent-person perspective.

Parenting is weird. It makes you reminisce, rethink, question everything. You try to pick what you take with you from what you learned from your own parents, as well as what you want to leave behind. You do your best, just as your parents did their best. What I am now working on with the kid: Consistency, clarity, independence within structure, boundaries, fist bumps. He is quite literally asking for this! Is that a yes or a no? But the learned behavior sneaks in. Because you’re always reacting, right?

So the question is a good one. It’s making me dig deep on stuff I’d rather not dig deep on. But the teaching lasts. I have a good teacher.

VP, Editorial @Medium. I write and edit, usually in that order.

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