When my Daughter Says “No”

Sarah Baughman essays

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My daughter’s great at saying “No.” Her ideas about what she wants and doesn’t want are clear as glass and sometimes just as cutting.

I wouldn’t call her rude, not generally, definitely not more so than the average 3-year-old. She’s firm, convinced. It’s not just her age. Staunch independence keeps her detached from situations that might make even a child more reliant on social approval anxious, or insecure.

I’ve watched her elect not to join in with a small group of girls her age at our local open gym simply because they were playing a game she didn’t want to play. They weren’t mean to her. She wasn’t upset. She just wanted to color instead, and that’s what she did, without a trace of worry.

I resisted the urge to ask, “Don’t you want to play with the other girls?” I knew she was perfectly capable of that too. I’d seen her do it. But I also knew that if she was done, she was done. So I sat next to her and colored with her.

I don’t know where my daughter got her confidence. I wish I could say from me, but how can that be? I’ve started so many sentences with the word “Sorry.” I’ve ignored hunches, swallowed feelings, stuffed ideas to my mind’s very bottom drawer because I don’t feel strong enough in them to possibly upset another person’s plans.

But in my daughter I see another way: the possibility to know, with certainty, one’s mind, and then to express it in a way that’s both unthreatening and unapologetic.

As her mom, I’ve noticed that people often tend to expect girls to be a little sweeter than she sometimes is. A little more accommodating. “Wow, yikes,” they’d say, holding their hands up in mock defense, when she hollered as a baby if someone tried to pick her up when she didn’t want to be held. People want her to give them smiles, waves, hellos. But she doesn’t hand those out to just anyone.

I’ve begun to realize that more than any of her wonderful traits—her intelligence, her sense of humor that leaves the rest of the family doubled over in laughter, her love of animals and books and art, her ability to calculate building with Legos and writing letters and buttoning her sweater—this is the one I want to preserve most in her. The one I pray I never ruin. Her self-confidence is so pure, witnessing it feels almost blinding, like looking straight at the sun.

“No, I don’t want to,” she says now, calmly, resolutely, to the friend who asks her repeatedly to ride in the Cozy Coupe during open gym. They’ve been playing happily together, and will again soon, I’m sure. But not right now. “No,” she repeats, her voice even, steady, not unkind. “I don’t want to.” She’s not yelling. She’s actually being very reasonable. Her friend looks disappointed, but what can she do? She moves on.

I sit far enough away not to meddle. I don’t want to rush over with my sense of obligation, my wheedling compromises, my apologies. Instead, I listen. I mouth my daughter’s words. Maybe one day I’ll say them too.


About the Author

Sarah Baughman

Sarah Baughman teaches English and lives with her husband and two children in Vermont. Her work has previously appeared in A River and Sound Review; Compose; Literary Mama; Brain, Mother, and elsewhere, and she .

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