little boy being scolded

Beyond defiance: saying “no” and stating independence

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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 they move into toddlerhood and preschooler years, children are experientially exploring the concept of “personhood” and working hard at establishing themselves as an independent individuals.

Beyond knowing their name, age, dislikes, and likes, developing autonomy requires your child to venture into stating that they are 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 them are actually very itchy.

Being able to express disaccord is a fundamental part of human experience, just as it is noticing the differences, seeing similarities, thinking abstractly, generalizing, arriving at new conclusions, building bridges between us, and creating new things. When your child says “no”, they are beginning to problematize things, assert independence and individuality through language, thus opening up many more developmental doors.

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