The Law of Extremes

If I can think of a better name for this Law, I will. For now, this is all I could come up with.

The Law of Extremes describes an uncanny aspect of child development which entails an overdose of whatever they are learning until it is able to integrate and assume it’s balanced part of your child’s life. This is hard to describe but easy to illustrate.

Think of your toddler who has just learned “No.” For awhile, it’s all you hear. “No” this, and “no” that. No, no, no, no, no. Your child will even say “no” to things he likes or questions he would normally answer “yes” to (like, “Don’t you want another cracker?”). This can go on for months. And just when you think you’ve had it, and you’re going to have to banish the word “no” from your household… he says “yes.” Whew!

Assuming that you are correcting your child at this point if he shows real rebellion—and I used to teach during that time that “no” was ok, but it had to be said nicely—the No-no stage is very normal. Some people associate it with terrible two’s because that is often when it shows up, but that isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes it occurs earlier or later—whenever the child is learning to dissociate himself from other people. He is learning his own likes, wants, and boundaries. This is so important.  But he has absolutely no knowledge of how to apply these things— no logic, no tact— so this behavior can create extremely unreasonable scenarios. It is trying. But it is good. You need to hold off as much as possible with any frustrated emotions long enough to watch the trying behavior settle down and incorporate itself more reasonably into your child’s repertoire of expressions. With your guidance, he will learn how to use “no” correctly. But for now, he is trying to figure out what it means and what responses it will bring. Think of it as learning by trial and error. Appropriate correction is necessary so he learns how to use “no”; under-correction can create willfulness, and over-correction can create oppression or fear.

The Law of Extremes is everywhere in a child’s development… maybe even in adult’s too, I’m not sure. From the time a baby is born to the time he is a preschooler, you will see the “overboard” behavior in various areas—physical, social,  emotional, moral, imaginative. It is how the brain brings something under cognitive control that originally was only an automatic reflex. Babies have automatic startles. Soon the startle will be restricted to real alarms. Babies have automatic sucking. Soon they will suck only when necessary. Babies even have automatic stepping reflexes. Soon that will go away and you will have to teach your baby how to step all over again… but this time, with purpose. All kinds of other physical phenomena (grasping, scratching, babbling, etc.) fall into this category of extremes where you see it occurring all the time, almost without control, and then it assimilates its proper place to be used with control, at the right times.

Other areas I have witnessed the “extreme” or overboard phenomenon:

  • wanting the new toy, video, or piece clothing
  • washing hands, using napkins or getting a new privilege/responsibility like that
  • asking questions, practicing them (unnecessary or repetitive ones, like “why” or “what’s this?” when they already know or don’t really care)
  • new games or play scripts
  • new language or expressions learned (“Look, it’s Daddy!”)
  • wearing a hat or carrying a backpack
  • labelling what something is, or what someone is doing (unncessarily, or repetitively)
  • pointing out trucks, birds, or other noisy things; asking “What’s that noise?,” making the corresponding noises
  • going through a verbal script at bedtime, mealtime, school time or other recurring event
  • jumping, hopping, walking on toes

These types of behaviors, and many more, are just part of the skills that need assimilation into your child’s repertoire.  They provide some kind of stimulus that the brain wants over and over until it gets it right.  Practice makes perfect, and the brain makes sure that the child gets plenty of practice.

So the question of the day is whether or not reinforcement will prolong the repetitive behavior (because it was rewarded), or whether it will abate it (because the attention helped gratify the need sooner).  I tended to avoid reinforcing the behavior (i.e. saying, “Yes, it IS a truck!” for the tenth time in a morning) because I wanted to extinguish the exclamation.  But this didn’t work.  Besides, everybody else always reinforced it.  So maybe I’ll try the other approach with our fourth baby and get back to you.

But the point is, the Law of Extremes is just part of normal development.  It reveals what your child is working on, and gives you opportunities to craft and shape the concept both cognitively and morally.  It can definitely get annoying, especially when new people hear your child saying something and you have to pretend you’ve never heard it before, but I have definitely learned to be patient for longer than I used to be.  Usually just when I’m getting to my limit (say 3 or 4 months later), the concept assimilates and my child starts using the thing they were going overboard on, more purposefully.  It is just the way God made it, it seems.

With one caveat: if your child is doing something extremely repetitively (perseverating), and/or it doesn’t get more purposeful over time (i.e. maybe six months), this is a red flag.  Use your best judgment and ask friends or your doctor if you are worried; your conscience often tells you when you are just feeling irritated and impatient with progress, and when too long is too long.  For example, my first child continued to point up in the sky and say “airpee” for a year.  He never ignored a plane, and yet he never expanded on the topic (i.e. “high in the sky!” or “where’s it going?”).  At the end of the year, he could say, “Look, Mom!  An airplane!” but still no essential (cognitive, evaluative) change.  I chalked up my annoyance as sin on my part, instead of getting it checked out.  Turned out he had about a year delay in expressive language.  Of course there were other symptoms too, so don’t panic if your kid still observes every plane, and bus and car and truck, that goes by your house too =) But the point is, sometimes if you are extremely upset by a repetitive behavior, there is something to that.  Get it checked out.


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