by Rebecca Elliott
A piercing scream cuts through the silence of nap time. Mrs. Ah Sing stands up from her chair to talk quietly with Tanner, the source of the ear-splitting noise. He’s not happy, because he doesn’t want to nap and he doesn’t want to be quiet.
Tanner is three. His sizable shock of blond hair doesn’t conform to match his small limbs. He seems tiny, delicate. His screams say otherwise. Mrs. Ah Sing is unfazed.
In the Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC) at Point Loma Nazarene University, Emma M. Ah Sing works with children in early adolescence, mostly ages three and four. Here, she also teaches college students how to work with young children through observation and interaction. With an outdoor playground and vibrant green lawn, the ECLC stands out among the college classrooms, postal service buildings and the parking garage that surround it. While some people enjoy hobbies like growing plants, Mrs. Ah Sing is devoted to growing humans.
Over the next forty minutes, Mrs. Ah Sing leaves our perch behind observation windows at the ECLC four times to talk to Tanner, trying to calm his loud protests. Patience, she says. Patience is necessary in children’s growth.
Cognitive constructivism. It’s a big phrase for an approach to small humans, one that Mrs. Ah Sing practices in parenting and teaching. The theory, developed by educational psychologist Jean Piaget, is discussed in his book, The Psychology of Intelligence. Piaget says, “Intelligence, the most plastic and at the same time the most durable structural equilibrium of behaviour, is essentially a system of living and acting operations.”
In simpler terms, intelligence is carried out by actions which must be modeled through language in a child’s early development. For Mrs. Ah Sing, language is everything, yet there’s one word heard quite often from children, children like Tanner. It’s a word that doesn’t seem to speak at all: no.
“If a child is jumping on a couch, I don’t tell them no. I say, ‘I see that you’re interested in jumping, but the couch is for sitting on; where else might we jump safely in the room?’” Mrs. Ah Sing says. “Then they’re thinking. They become thinkers, they become problem-solvers.”
Susan Rogers, the Academic Director of the ECLC, notes the power behind the two-letter word in a child’s mind.
“Children learn early that saying ‘no’ gives them power,” Rogers says “We have got to model that no means no, but you also have to tell them what the to-do behavior is.”
Crouching next to Tanner after his second outcry, Mrs. Ah Sing doesn’t tell him “no.” Instead, she tells him that now is nap time, and he must be quiet. At three years old, his brain doesn’t process this as a negative command, she says, but rather an alternative, appropriate behavior. After a while, she says, the kids stop saying “no” at all.
Dylan is nine. His father, James Wicks, a colleague of Mrs. Ah Sing, believes that “no” has the power to create boundaries, some beneficial and some harmful. In his office across campus from the ECLC, Wicks, a professor and father of three, says each of his children grew in different ways. He laughs, remembering the frustration of learning the personality traits of River, Abby and Dylan just as they advanced into the next phase of growth. Even six years ago, when Dylan was a toddler in the ECLC, he was constantly growing. Wicks smiles, fond memories of his children’s growth nearly tangible in the air in front of him, watching them replay on an invisible screen. It was a never ending cycle, he says, chasing the children’s movement in an endless pursuit to know them as they evolved.
As a professor, “no” creates helpful boundaries for classroom assignments and etiquette, setting academic expectations. As a father, he worries that “no” could create boundaries that inhibit his children’s ability to thrive.
He says, “You have to be really careful that you’re not instituting ‘no’ when it’s a side of the personality that the child needs to explore.”
When Wicks takes Dylan to the skate park, he lets him try any tricks, despite the possibility of injury. If he believes he’s capable of it, Wicks says, they’ll both find out whether or not that’s true. He doesn’t see it as a risk, but rather a path for Dylan to discover part of himself.
Back in the ECLC, Mrs. Ah Sing answers Tanner’s cries for the third time, hoping to grow habits in the three-year-old that will remain with him until he’s Dylan’s age.
Natalia is 21. For her, “no” is painful and powerless. She sits at an outdoor patio, not far from the building that houses Wicks’ office. Natalia isn’t afraid. She doesn’t speak with hesitancy, her words filtered through a light Colombian accent.
“I’ve been raped twice by two different students here,” she says “So my no’s have always felt very powerless.”
This is Natalia’s senior year. She will graduate with a psychology degree in May. She does not feel powerless anymore.
As a psychology intern at the San Diego Center for Children, Natalia spends hours working with children, using the skills Mrs. Ah Sing taught her.
“If I think about it in the psychological perspective of a child, it’s too powerful and negative sometimes,” Natalia says “Then we’re conditioned to diminish ourselves. There’s less compassion. As adults, we see that more.”
Clear communication between individuals implies value, Natalia says. In her life, “no” showed how others valued her, or didn’t. She mourns the loss of power the word carried when she was a child.
“If saying ‘no’ to that guy didn’t mean anything, then was I anything to that person? Am I anything to anyone around me?”
She pauses, shaking her head a little. “But it doesn’t stop me from believing I can change that.”
In the article, “The Strange Evolution of Title IX,” Co-chair of the Harvard Program on Constitutional Government, R. Shep Melnick, notes society’s evolving definitions of sex and gender in the decades since Title IX’s passing.
Melnick says, “Over the past five decades, the understanding of nondiscrimination underlying Title IX has steadily drifted away from eliminating institutional barriers to educational opportunity for women and girls, and toward the much more ambitious project of changing the way we think about sex differences, gender roles, and sexuality in general.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s website states the original version of Title IX when passed during the Education Amendments of 1972. It reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Sex and gender are not the only evolving words used to define personal boundaries. Mrs. Rogers and Mrs. Ah Sing explain that “no” is spoken and received in various contexts. Interpretations differ in every situation and for every individual, much like the definitions of sex and gender.
When it comes to the development of understanding “no” as a person ages, Mrs. Ah Sing hasn’t conducted any studies. However, she raised five children, a different kind of feat, saying that her children are proof of the success of Piaget’s approach. She used the cognitive constructivism theory before she studied it, saying it came naturally to her. She reflects on her children’s teenage years, a stereotyped age of angst that many parents dread. Unfazed, Mrs. Ah Sing describes those years as positive and pleasant. Unknowingly employing Piaget’s theory, she raised her children with a philosophy of communication, one that Natalia learned from her. It’s not a stretch, Mrs. Ah Sing says, to believe that their unproblematic teen years could be attributed to their early adolescent development, to avoidance of “no” and encouragement of to-do behaviors.
“A lot of times parents are just trying to get through this stage, this hour, this time,” she says “A lot of people don’t think about it being a lifetime.”
Like Wicks, Mrs. Rogers emphasizes that growth itself isn’t the crux, it’s what children learn and experience during growth. This includes the trial and error of “no” beginning at a young age.
“Children are always trying to make sense of the world at every level they are at. They’re going to find the inconsistencies and they’re going to try to make sense of the world once they understand more information,” she says “Then, when they’re at a different level, they’re going to have to make sense of the world again.”
The way we communicate at the youngest ages plays a significant role in our adult lives and future relationships, Mrs. Ah Sing says. Parents and teachers have the opportunity to coordinate in shaping their child’s language and resulting actions. There is always room for deeper understanding. We must learn to define “no,” to maintain its power as we age.
Mrs. Ah Sing gets up from her chair for the fourth time. Tanner is not giving up. She walks back into the classroom, bending down to speak to the small, squirming boy. She is patient. He is still growing.