Imagine the scene. Your kid is on the cusp of becoming a toddler. They spend their days teetering around, swishing behind them a rainbow of babbles, innocence and light. They seem to tip-toe across rooms like a lady at an etiquette school balancing books on her bonce, their little head wobbling gently in the manner of an acquiescent Indian’s, but holding firm and steady, their gaze fixed on some far-off and unseen horizon.
There are, however, no books resting atop that diminutive dome, only a single, solitary halo, round and bright and smooth and solid, a perfect crown for a perfect kid. The halo will stay, of that you’re certain, permanent proof of your supremacy as parents. The concept of sharing? Tick. A sweet, happy and loving disposition? Tick. Absence of tantrums? Tick. You’ve done everything right, in fact you’ve re-written the rule book, and made right look positively, prehistorically left. Hundreds of thousands of years of child-rearing distilled and crystalised into the body of that zen-like little creature you’ve gifted to the world. If you had a mic you’d drop it, walk past a billion-strong crowd of parents with a sneer on your lips and a swagger in your step: “Suck our block-rocking cocks, Doctor Spock! Mum and dad out! ”
I remember the days well. When our little boy was very small, my partner and I would find ourselves in restaurants, or soft-plays, or attending children’s parties, surveying the raft of shrieking, wailing, kicking, screaming, biting, slapping demon spawn around us; we’d observe the scarlet-faced, coarse-voiced frustration of their parents, and we’d each raise a silent furry eyebrow in the other’s direction. Our eyebrows would receive such regular and herculian workouts that it’s a wonder the juts of our brows weren’t rendered cro-magnan with the extra layers of muscle.
Afterwards, in the car or safely back home, we’d dissect the scenes, two Glasgow tenament women gossiping over a fence, arrogance and self-righteousness flooding from our mouths like bile-flavoured milkshakes: “Did you see it when that kid hit that other kid? Oh, I know, and then when he… yeah, and then that little girl, you know the one, the one with the messy big face, when she kicked that boy in the… oh, I know, I know. And when that kid stole that sandwich from the smaller kid and shoved it in his mouth, and the mother just… well, she just sat there… I mean, our kid would never do that, never, and even if he did, well, I mean, we simply wouldn’t stand for it, would we?” No, of course that wouldn’t happen to us. Impossible. I mean, that’s a halo on his head, not a hoopla. It’s fixed. It’s everlasting. We’ve won at parenting, that’s what that halo means.
It’s the age-old tale. Just as you’re busy awarding yourself with a machine-gun volley of self-congratulatory slaps on the back, a funny thing happens…
Your kid turns into a fucking asshole.
That’s right, people. A beautiful, wonderful, magnificent asshole, sure, but an asshole none-the-less. They push kids. They snatch toys. They hurtle down the aisles of the supermarket whooping and laughing, their ears closed to your hollers of protestation. They lob their dinner at the cat. They lob the cat at their dinner. They start ritually sacrificing goats and glugging the blood like wine.
The transformation doesn’t happen overnight. At least it didn’t for us. I still remember the day when the bubble of our hubris was loudly and decisively popped, in public, during a trip to the safari park. The lion’s share of the day (forgive me) had passed without incident; our darling boy had cooed at the elephants, stood enthralled by the giraffes, and laughed his little ass off at the meerkats. It was a time of great joy, and peace, just like all the rest of our times. Why should this day be any different? In retrospect, it was the most apposite time for the universe to send this particular piano of truth crashing down atop our heads.
My son, as we learned that day – and have never forgotten – is highly skilled at perfectly timing his tantrums and manic episodes to coincide with those moments where we find ourselves trapped and unable to pull free from the orbit of his naughtiness. Like, for example, when we’re crammed into a small boat with twenty-five strangers en route to Chimp Island.
I had been excited. “I wonder what those chimps are going to get up to,” I said to my partner. “The reason these boats have cages around them isn’t simply to protect us from an audacious chimp attack or prevent us from falling overboard. They’re there to protect us from the rocks and sticks the chimps like to hurl at the boats. Not to mention clumps of their own shite. God, I’ll bet they’re going to go absolutely mental, and jump around and throw shite at us. Oh please say that they’ll do all that, please, I can’t wait to see them go crazy!”
Disappointingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they did nothing. They just stood there on the shore, staring mutely at us, bored and weary looks weighing down their ancient hairy faces. My son instantly siezed the opportunity to show his lesser cousins how boisterousness was done, homo sapien-style, claiming centre stage for himself. He writhed and flailed in my arms, shrieking like a banshee in a house-fire, his little limbs pumping like pistons oiled by evil. He occasionally ceased his shrieks to sink his tiny little teeth into the soft flesh of my shoulder. I had to hold him back, and aloft, like he was some psychopathically recalcitrant zombie Scrappy Doo. All eyes on the boat turned to us: the hairless missing links that were infinitely more interesting to behold than the sluggish, half-arsed primates across the water.
Water, I thought. I’ll give him a drink of his water; that’ll distract him. Well, it did, and it didn’t. He started loading it into his mouth like liquid ammunition and spitting it everywhere, raining down globs of watery child saliva upon the shoulders of those poor souls unfortunate enough to find themselves in our immediate vicinity. Never have so many sorries been uttered in such a short a space of time to so many by so few. I could already hear the judgements and condemnations forming in their minds, as they prepared to engage in the same sorts of conversations that we’d always enjoyed having about other people’s naughty children. It’s funny how you find yourself playing to the gallery during those moments, loudly spelling out the extenuating circumstances behind your child’s behaviour for all to hear. “He’s not normally like this… I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS, CAN YOU HEAR ME AT THE BACK UP THERE?! I’LL SAY IT MORE LOUDLY, I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS!”
A few weeks ago we attended an American friend’s fourth of July barbecue. Naturally, we dressed Jack in a Captain America costume, complete with superhero shield. I had been very close to ordering my partner and I Uncle Sam hats and Obama masks for the occasion. Thank Christ I didn’t, because when we arrived there was nothing identifiably American about the occasion, save for the host herself. I blame my misconceptions on Rocky IV, which I’ve obviously interpreted as some sort of cultural documentary. I dread to think how we would have dressed our kid had we been invited to a Hindu celebration.
Anyway, our wee guy was five to eight months older than most of the kids at the barbecue, and was long overdue a nap. As a consequence, his ‘well-developed concept of sharing’ was buried deep within a fog of pissiness. He snatched books and toys from the smaller kids, and knocked them over like pins at a bowling arcade. You feel paralysed at times like this. People who have no frame of reference for your kid’s behaviour will naturally assume that you’ve raised an asshole. You want to chide your kid, to show that you’re not a passive parent who tolerates unruly behaviour, but at the same time you feel you have to hold back your sterner inclinations because you also don’t want to come across as the boom-voiced, authoritarian dick you are at home. I just ended up sounding like Hooks from Police Academy, with an apologetic, wobbly whisper escaping from my mouth in the mould of ‘Don’t move… dirtbag,’ followed by a muttered string of, ‘He’s not normally like this-es’ and ‘He’s a wee sweetheart at home-s.’
Don’t misunderstand. Our boy isn’t the devil. He’s still a sweet, bright, caring and loving little person, and thoroughly well-behaved the vast majority of the time, which is one way of saying that the beatings are working. He’s never surly or aggressive or violent, he just occasionally likes to flaunt his moxy, and wear a look on his face that says: ‘There hasn’t been a naughty step built that can hold me, motherfuckers.’
I guess the occasional bout of bad behaviour is par for the course at certain stages of a child’s development. And sometimes what we class as bad behaviour is a by-product of limits being tested or the flexing some new found muscle of freedom or experience. It’s our job to introduce him to consequences and responsiblity, certainly, and to socialise him, and protect him from the unfiltered excesses of his own ego and the punishments he might face from those outside the family with a less forgiving eye, but it’s also our job to understand what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, and ask ourselves why he might be behaving in a certain way. We owe him that. Sometimes he’s hungry, sometimes he’s tired, sometimes he lacks the language skills to convey his feelings and communicate his desires, which can lead to frustration. Sometimes, when we make an effort to trace the genesis of a particular action or behaviour, we’ll discover that we, the parents, are the unwitting Kaiser Szozes.
For instance, we’ll chase him around the house telling him we’re going to eat his legs off, and then react with shock and anger when he later runs up to us and sinks his teeth into our leg. Or we’ll make the experience of teeth-brushing more fun by preceding it with a round-the-house, laughter-filled chase, and then lose our shit when he decides it would be funny to replicate the chase in a busy supermarket when we’re lugging heavy baskets of fresh produce. This is one reason we’ll never smack or strike him. What will you then do if your child hits someone? Hit them harder? To teach them about the abuse of power and hypocrisy?
We’re learning that the toddler years, especially as we prepare to enter the infamous ‘terrible twos’, are a period of constant adjustment and correction, of our behaviour as much as his.
It’s reasonably easy to predict what a baby will do. But as a baby becomes a toddler becomes a child becomes a teenager becomes an adult, the range of possibilities stretched before them – of thought, of action, of mood, of mind, of experience – increases a million-fold, transforming the relationship between cause and effect into a dizzying, ever-multiplying web of connections. They’re exposed to other kids, other family members, other adults in your friend circle, strangers, the TV, a multitude of new sounds and smells and toys and concepts. Life is complex, and complicated, and so’s your kid.
What I’m saying is, should ever see our little boy dashing around a supermarket with a mischevious glint in his eye as we lumber after him like angry dog-catchers, or hear me roaring in pain because my darling son has just sprinted towards me and sunk his teeth into my crotch, please reserve your judgement. I promise to do the same for you. And keep your eyes trained on the empty space above his skull. If you screw up your eyes and strain really hard, you’ll still be able to see the faint outline of a halo. Not quite as bright as it once was. Maybe not as perfectly round. But it’s there.
I promise you it’s still there.
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