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Negativity and Exploration as Signs of Developing Autonomy

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Negativity

The first sign of the developing autonomy is when the darling baby who happily opened his mouth for each bite of cereal or strained vegetables suddenly one day clamps his lips shut and turns aside. His meaning is clear. Without a word spoken, this is the beginning of “No!”

The theory says that the child can now begin to see himself as an individual separate from his mother or other object of attachment. He finds power in his difference—he’s not the same person as this adult in his life. He finds power, and he uses it.

This is only the beginning. By 2 years of age, this child is likely to be contrary about everything. If his mother likes peas, he hates them. If his father wants to take him for a ride, he balks. He refuses to get into the bathtub, and when he is finally coaxed in, he refuses to get out again. Life becomes a struggle because he is so busy asserting his individuality.

Sometimes toddlers say “no” so much because they hear the word all the time. If parents or caregivers use the word no as the primary means of managing behavior, the first no’s of their children may be imitations of adults.

However, even if adults use a variety of means of guiding behavior and minimize the number of no’s in their child’s life, toddlers still learn to say that magic word.

It’s important to realize that learning to say no is a vital skill. What would your life be like if you never said no to anything? Do you remember the temptations of your teen years? Do you wish you had learned to say a good strong “No!” earlier? What are your temptations now? Do you find saying no a useful skill in your life today? How much do you remember about your own toddler years? Did the adults who were in your life regard your no’s as skill building, or as defiance of their authority? Their perception of you then may influence your perception of children in the toddler stage now.

Exploration

Exploration starts in infancy, grows out of attachment, and increases as children move toward autonomy. It may seem ironic that a child who is firmly attached explores more than one who is not. But it makes sense if you think of the attachment as providing a secure base to move out from. In fact, you can even see this phenomenon in action by watching a parent and a young child who are in a strange environment. The child will move out from the parent but will check back regularly. Sometimes it’s just a glance; other times she runs back to the parent and clings for a moment before venturing out again.

The other factor in exploration is the freedom to move that the child is given in infancy. The research of Dr. Emmi Pikler indicates that babies who develop their movement skills independent of adults learn that they are capable individuals. Their trust in their own skills make them remarkable explorers (David & Appell, 2001; Gonzalez-Mena, 2004; Pikler, 1971, 1973; Pikler & Tardos, 1968). Babies in the Pikler Institute, a residential nursery in Budapest, are put on their backs where they have the most freedom to use their bodies. They are free of restrictive devices like infant seats, swings, even high chairs. No one puts the babies into positions they can’t get into by themselves. Adults don’t sit them up, stand them up, or walk them around. As they grow, these babies show an amazing sense of physical security. This same approach is also used by the staff at the Resources for Infant Educarers in Los Angeles, California. Founded by Magda Gerber and known as RIE, the program follows the teachings of Emmi Pikler, who was the teacher of Gerber (Gerber, 1979).

Infants who learn to use their bodies well and who experience adult appeciation of their exploration urges become toddlers who move around a lot when they feel secure. Toddlers, without urging, spontaneously explore the space around them. In my classes I’ve asked students to observe a toddler in child care and to map the territory the child moves through. The maps that come out of these observations are amazing. A toddler can cover miles in a single day just by trotting back and forth across a room or a play yard.

Toddlers explore with their hands—and use their other senses as well. Given something new, they’ll bang it, smell it, try to pull it apart, maybe throw it, and quite often taste it. They are little scientists. They want to know what everything can do—how it works.

Toddlers are “doers” but not “producers.” They explore, experiment, and try things out to see what will happen. That means if you give them a toy or an activity that is designed to be used in a certain way, they’re sure to try a dozen other ways to use it. They are not interested in outcomes or products. They enjoy the process of exploring and experimenting for its own sake, and they don’t need anything to show for it.

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