Nuance

Oddly, several people recently have used the word “nuance” in discussions with me about different issues with which they wanted help.  As they began to get the idea of a way of approaching these issues, they said it was “nuanced.”  The word nuance usually means a subtle variation, or a gradation in meaning.  But what was it a variation or gradation in meaning of?

In thinking about this, it seemed to me to relate to the tendency we often have to see things as black or white.  An idea or person is either right or wrong.  Someone is either to blame or not to blame.  If a child wants something, the answer is either yes or no.  In the same vein, you should never give in or a child will think he can get what he wants by crying or making a fuss.

In child-rearing many confrontations arise from this black or white stance, the feeling that somehow there is no alternative other than yes or no.  Neither alternative seems satisfactory.  “No,” may result in a tantrum or struggle, while “yes” can seem removed from what a parent either wants or believes is appropriate.  The word “nuance” seemed to appear in the effort to find a way around this dilemma.

One situation in which this word popped up was described by a very pregnant mom who was about two weeks away from delivering a sibling to her two year old.  The little girl was clearly aware that a change was about to take place – and already had, in some respects, like her mom’s ability to pick her up – even without the full impact of a new baby’s arrival.  She was insisting that she was the baby, wanted to sit in the baby seat and use all the baby things.  She became very upset if they tried not to permit this.

The mother said that she herself was upset on her daughter’s behalf, as an older sister who remembers what it felt like when her sister came on the scene.  They have been going along with the little girl’s wish to be the baby, pretending with her that she was the baby.  Mom was worried about doing this thinking about what the implications might be when the new baby will actually be there.  She wondered if they really should not be going along with this but worried about the girl’s reaction to their not permitting it.     

Here is where she was stuck feeling that the only two alternatives were to permit or not permit the child to act out her wishes.  Instead, we talked about the ways she could validate the child’s feelings while beginning to move her away from the behavior in which they were expressed.  It was clear the child needed to be reassured that her place would not be usurped by a new arrival.  But in fact, she is really two years plus and can do all kinds of things that a baby can’t do – like talk to mom and play games.  There are rewards for moving out of being a baby.

Mom began to see that there were ways of responding to her daughter’s wishes other than yes or no.  This was when “nuance” popped up.  The absence of absolutes in approaching it this way seemed to her subtle because it involved identifying with both sides of the conflict: the wish to remain a baby but also the satisfactions of growing up.  This is a major inner struggle in the early years – sometimes even the later ones – and appears in different forms as children develop.  

The word that I find more useful than nuance is process.  Helping children move from where they are to where we want them to be is a process.  Process implies something fluid – movement that is continually taking place.   Movement means not being fully here or there, but rather in the process of becoming or getting there.  Helping children move in that way means trying to understand where they are coming from, where they are going, and what if anything, is a sticking point along the way. 

     Is that nuanced?