"No!" yelled Coraline as I made yet another attempt to buckle her into her car seat last November. At 17 months, my daughter had become quite vocal in announcing her displeasure with diaper changes, nose wipes, bath time, and, on that particular day, getting into the car.
At first, the word sounded pretty cute coming out of her mouth, especially when accompanied by a finger pointing at one of our cats on the kitchen counter. But it gradually became less endearing, leading to frustration and exhaustion on my part. What happened to my easy, go-with-the-flow, happy little girl?
Regardless of how long any struggle lasted, Coraline always ended each day peacefully asleep in her crib. I, on the other hand, finished most evenings with a beer in hand, trying to catch up on the day's top news stories.
Last fall, those stories had become similar to a casino roulette wheel. Every few days it stopped on the name of a different celebrity accused of sexual harassment or assault: Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Al Franken.
Every time a new name dropped, my understanding of just how challenging it is to be a woman in today's society deepened a little bit more. Friends' personal accounts on Facebook furthered my awareness. I felt angry, disgusted and sad.
And I thought about Coraline. How would I be able to protect my daughter if she were ever sexually harassed or physically assaulted? As the news accounts piled up, it was looking a lot more like it wouldn't be if something happened but when. I needed to accept reality: I would have to prepare my child for a world where sexual harassment and assault are common.
I decided to focus on the present, since research indicates that most brain development occurs during the first three years of a child's life.
I thought about two books that had become part of Coraline's pre-naptime ritual: Hug Time by Patrick McDonnell, and The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen. I had previously viewed these stories as sweet, innocent tales about friendship. But in the context of my recent ponderings, I saw them in a more nefarious light. Did the kitten get consent from that wombat before hugging it? Is that fish really going around planting huge smooches on other sea creatures' faces without asking? I decided we would have to comb through Coraline's library and get rid of any book that appeared to celebrate non-consensual contact.
Later that month, my partner, Stephanie, and I attended a parent-teacher conference at Coraline's childcare center. When the topic of talking came up, I was eager to discuss the challenges of raising our opinionated little lady. "Well, she sure knows the word, 'no,'" I offered. Everyone laughed, all having witnessed the powerful force our daughter was becoming. Then one of the teachers spoke.
"We want her to use the word 'no.' It allows her to speak up, to advocate for herself. When a kid takes a toy out of her hands, we want her to tell that other child, 'No!'"
When you're wrestling with your toddler to get sunscreen on her face, it's easy to forget why no is an important tool. But after that conference, I began to see the word in a different light.
I realized that thinking critically about the books in my daughter's library should be accompanied by other strategies for empowering her. I came up with a handful of tenets that I'll use to guide my parenting.
I'll show her what respect looks like. I try my best to treat everyone we encounter with kindness and politeness, even those who make me feel frustrated.
I'll teach her healthy communication skills. That means modeling active listening, collaborative problem solving and finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts.
I'll teach her to persevere. I want her to know that she is strong and can handle some challenges on her own. Sure, climbing up that staircase isn't easy, but you can do it. But I'll also let her know some problems are too big to handle alone, and it's OK to ask for help.
I'll teach her to advocate for herself and others. I will encourage her to speak up when she notices something isn't right, whether it's a peer being treated unfairly or a cashier giving her an incorrect amount of change.
I'll validate her emotions. I'll think twice before I use the common phrase, "It's OK," to dismiss her feelings — even if the thing making her cry is getting a blue cup instead of a purple one — because, to her, those feelings are authentic.
I'll teach her that "boys will be boys" is not an excuse for bad behavior. A real man is someone who is kind and who listens. Someone who advocates for and helps others.
Last month, I spent a rainy afternoon at the library with Coraline, who's now almost 2. I watched as she joyfully picked up a stray pencil from the floor in the children's section. Seconds later, a larger boy came running over and ripped it out of her hands. I hung back and watched her response.
"No!" she yelled, marching up to the boy and attempting to take it back. The boy smiled as he pulled it away.
"No!" Coraline yelled again, increasingly frustrated. At that point, I knelt down between them.
"Hey, she was using that pencil," I told him. "We need to share."
He handed it back to my daughter and walked away.
Right now I'm here to help Coraline when she needs me. But I won't always be. That's why I'm glad she's learning the power of no.