My Son’s Peaceful Defiance

Stymied When My Toddler Says “I Won’t”

Parents can be so smug. We think we have life’s puzzles solved, and that our kids are callow dimwits desperate for our guidance. Admit it: We think of them as dense, doughy biscuits requiring the heat of our unparalleled wisdom to rise to their fluffy full potential.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if we’re wrong. If, in fact, our car seat-bound offspring are the ones who have the answers and we grown-ups are too culturally programmed, too set-in-our-ways, to see it.

Starshine Roshell

The notion strikes when I ask my three-year-old to put on his shoes. Or clean up his toys. Or turn off his video, come upstairs, and take a bath. That’s when he looks at me with utter impunity and says, “I won’t.”

There’s no willfulness in his voice. No shame. No guilt. “I won’t.”

He’s simply stating a fact, letting me know we’re going to have a problem here if I insist on pursuing this ridiculous mandate.

There’s a look of - is that peace? - that crosses his peanut butter-smeared face when he says it, and I’ll admit the whole situation stymies me. My linear adult thought process goes like this: How do I get the child clean if he won’t get in the tub? How “clean” does a person really need to be? What will his preschool teachers whisper when they notice the same dirt smudge that was on his knee yesterday : and the day before?

But his behavior also kind of inspires me.

Where do you get that kind of moxie? Are you born with it and does it dissipate with age? Is it gradually paved over by parental praise, “good” grades, and society’s other rewards for cooperative behavior? And if so : can you get it back?

Because there are lots of times when I’d like to look people smack in the face and tell them dispassionately, “I won’t.”

The hostess, for instance, who tells me I have to wait 20 minutes for a patio table. Or the Costco cashier who informs me that these coupons aren’t valid until tomorrow and I’ll have to come back then.

This must be how my son feels when I impose my agenda on his. It’s not personal. It’s not a plea for autonomy. It’s this: The information he’s just heard registers as utterly, abominably wrong. It offends his sense of fairness, stings his understanding of how the world should operate.

Look,” his two words tell me. “I kept my shoes off the couch. I ate those ghastly green beans. All I want is to go about my business without you bossing me around for 10 minutes. Is that so much to ask?”

I got an email this week from a company I work for. “We received your invoice, but you need to fill out these [multiple, maddening, mind-numbing] attached forms and fax them back before we can cut you a check.”

What I said: “Sure thing. Thanks.” What I wish I’d said: “I won’t.”

There’s the ATM machine that asks if I will accept a $2.50 processing fee. The road signs that show my freeway exit is closed and I’ll have to take a two-mile detour. The voice in my head insisting I should really skip dessert considering what I ate for lunch.

Hmph. Watch and see if I will.

We grow accustomed to being ordered around. We accept it. We barely even notice it after a time. And we rarely, if ever, speak out in opposition.

I’d like to be humble enough to respect my son’s defiant decisions and learn from his fearless approach to life. I’d like to be free-willed enough to look society in the face and occasionally say, with peace on my face, “Ain’t gonna happen.”

But let’s face it.

I won’t.

Starshine Roshell is the author of Keep Your Skirt On, a collection of columns available at

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