As developmental psychologist Erick Erickson stated half a century ago, a big part of a child’s social and emotional development during the first years of life is the struggle of navigating both dependence and autonomy. As he moves into his toddlerhood and preschooler years, your child is experientially exploring the concept of “personhood” and working hard at establishing himself as an independent individual.
Beyond knowing his name, age, dislikes and likes, developing autonomy requires your son to venture into stating that he is entitled to feelings and opinions that might not only be different from your own, but might also be in conflict with your wishes. It’s here where you might feel like you’re stranded in the “no-land” alongside your kid.
Because cognitive development is still in its early stages, between 2 and 4 years of age kids are just starting to think of the world in categories and concepts, and they begin by seeing things through the binary “yes-no”. Also, even though your kid’s language skills have undoubtedly developed a lot by now, they are still in their early stages and aren’t of much use when your little one tries to communicate with you. For a preschooler, saying “no” is far more reachable than explaining in long sentences and complicated grammar that those socks you insist on putting on him are actually very itchy.
Being able to express disaccord is a fundamental part of human experience, just as it is noticing the differences, see similarities, think abstractly, generalize, arrive at new conclusions, build bridges between us and create new things. When your child says “no”, he is beginning to problematize things, assert independence and individuality through language, thus opening up many more developmental doors.