There are two times in a child's life when the desire for autonomy is especially prominent. The first is when an infant becomes a toddler and the second is when the hormones of puberty emerge.
What is the worst word a growing toddler can learn? According to medical researchers at the Mayo Clinic, language development for the first two years of a baby's life includes some typical milestones. By the end of 12 months, an ability to say a few words like "dada," "mama" and "uh-oh." By the end of 18 months, the ability to say as many as 10 words. By the end of 24 months, the ability to speak 50 words or more. Of course, all children learn to speak at their own pace. But are there any specific words that can be especially disconcerting to a caregiver's ears while these tykes are acquiring an ever-expanding vocabulary? The answer, as every parent knows, is the dreaded word, “no.”
What is the significance of “no”? Instead of perceiving this single-sentence refusal as our children's determination to build a wall of defiance, could this monosyllabic negation be their attempt to construct a bridge toward independence? Is this their struggle to select the path less traveled; a preference for their way, not ours?
Adults have an average vocabulary of 30,000 words. Teens command a mere 3,000 but time is on their side to enlarge that pool. Since their brain is intrigued by complicated lines of reasoning, they have abandoned the childish assertion of “no” to show off their mature grasp of debate and rebuttal. Still, after listening to their litany of logic that claims “all my friends' folks are letting them do it,” small wonder that parents revert to “because I said so” for their closing argument.
Babies dash into the terrible twos when they have developed enough gross motor skills, which require muscle strength, balance and brain coordination, to move from crawling to standing to walking and then rather quickly to running. Again, ask any parent how swiftly a toddler can flee from security into jeopardy and how resistant they can become to being captured or restrained. America celebrates its independence once a year. A 2-year-old seeks independence every day.
Similarly, many teenagers resist restraints. However, their locomotion needs often involve a craving for both physical and emotional distances. Even when confined to the home by curfew rules, they can escape into social media, musical headphones or vividly imaginative flights of fancy. If a sense of freedom is not available to them, clever adolescents will invent their own. After all, America celebrates its independence once a year. A teenager seeks independence every day.
And so, as a nation, would we classify the United States as a toddler or an adolescent? The words we impress upon our currency don't say "no" but rather "In God We Trust." Our locomotion in terms of the distance we are willing to travel to help people in distress envelopes the entire 197 million square miles of our earth. If these words and motions constitute the very fiber of our patriotism, then the seeds of our becoming the great adult nation we are today must have been sown in the rich soil of a childhood and adolescence in search of liberty and justice for all.
For Holy Homework: During our nation's birth month of July, fix a dollar bill to the refrigerator door so that the words "In God We Trust" are prominently on display. Then offer a prayer of thanks for all the children, adolescents and adults who salute Old Glory and proudly sing "God Bless America."
Comments can be sent to: FatherBobPagliari@Yahoo.com
To order your copy of Fr. Bob Pagliari's book, HOLY HOMEWORK send a check payable to Catholic New York in the amount of $16.45 ($14.95 + $1.50 postage) to Catholic New York, 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022