“Terrible isn't a strong enough adjective for two year-olds,” I told my mommy friend.
We had run into one another on Vanderbilt Avenue, midway through a sweltering morning, our deceptively cute toddlers in tow. Neither of us were having a good day.
“Tell me about it,” she said. “I love my child, but toddlers suck.”
I caught the briefest of communications pass between our children. A tiny wink, the ocular equivalent of a hi-five, lips wrinkling to a near-smirk, a slight nod of the head – the message was clear.
A few weeks ago my son learned how to say “yes.” Up to this point, his motto seemed to be “Say no to life,” as he met most offers with a blanket refusal. Once he began accepting things, his general frustration with the world seemed significantly less.
Ah, I thought. Finally, language has come to the beast! Now we can reason with him. Soon, he'll be using the potty, dressing himself, and going off to college – my job will be done. What a wild ride this has been!
As usual, I was premature. The beast lives on, now resisting our authority with words as well as actions.
He plans his protests during the most routine parts of our day. Getting in the stroller may take upwards of half an hour and require several time-outs. Dinnertime, which signals the start of the long road to bed, draws out in a series of stalls and evasive maneuvers. He spends most of each meal hiding under a napkin asking if anyone's seen him, but he shovels it in and cries “Eating!” come bath time.
But nothing vexes me more than diaper changes, from which my son deceives – “no poo-poo!” he exclaims, as if I lacked a sense of smell – and hides. I can understand: what's more humiliating that surrendering control of your nether region? Yet he refuses to use the potty. His ideal seems to be going on the floor, which he'll do the moment he's left unattended with a bare bottom.
On the morning before I ran into my mommy friend, I gave up. “I'm not going to fight,” I told him. “I won't change your diaper until you're ready, but that means no leaving your room, and Daddy's not going to play with you.”
“No diaper change,” he whispered.
Time went by. He stood by the window babbling about driving a blue car to Pop-Pop's house. I read an article in The New Yorker, a rare feat. Then, my article finished, I grew bored. I checked in with the refusenik. “Want to go to the playground? Then let's change your diaper. Otherwise, we stay in your room. You decide.”
“No diaper change,” he repeated.
Forty minutes later, I'm tired of sitting in his dimly lit bedroom, while he's having a grand old time doing just that – “Sitting poo-poo.” That's what he says when he plops onto his dirty diaper and spins, which he only does to piss me off, if you'll pardon my mixing bathroom imagery.
I finally wrestled the kid down, kicking and thrashing. He had developed a rash by this point, and I explained how his actions hurt only himself, not me. But the annoying turn to his eyes and that mischievous grin on his face told me he knew the truth.
He had gotten to me, worn me down. Proven that, if he keeps me locked in his room for long enough, I'll go stir crazy. I'll snap.
Spending all day alone with a toddler is like being locked in a looney bin. I'm pretty sure I'm the sane one, but I have my doubts.
It wasn't always this way. People lauded my patience back when he was a quieter, gentler creature. One who wouldn't hit when I'd prevent him from running pellmell into the street, or head butt when I'd carry him upstairs for a much dreaded bath. It's not in my nature to deal with this kind of irrationality, or do so unaffected.
When I taught public school some years ago, I noticed a great difference between the classroom presence of the elementary and middle grade teachers. Elementary school teachers favored cute, often rhyming catchphrases for discipline, which they recited in animated sing-song voices. Everything became a game, from lining up to cleaning the classroom.
For the middle school teacher, things were cut and dry. These are the rules, follow them. Disobey and be punished. Here's your work, now do it. What do you want, a reward? How about good ole' fashioned satisfaction of a job well done.
I'm a middle school teacher through and through. But I've come to see why parents favor the elementary approach, making games out of simple tasks, heaping on praise, bribing their children with cookies for doing what they're supposed to be doing – listening to their parents! It's easier, probably because it's developmentally more appropriate.
Still I cling to my convictions, offering punishments instead of rewards – such as locking him with me in his room until he submits to a diaper change.
So far, it ain't working too great. We've spent a lot of mornings inside, drapes drawn, demands made, hostilities engaged.
This, I think, is why suddenly so many kids start preschool around the age of two. Their parents say things like “my kid needs socialization,” but I don't buy it. Our kids interact with one another on the playground and at play dates. No, toddlers drive the majority of parents up a wall, and most people would rather hand their child off then deal with the little beast.
I don't blame them. Some days, especially these hot ones, I feel the same way. Toddlers are crazy. And, as my friend so aptly put it, they often suck. Deliberately so.
It's in their nature. They are gaining so many skills, putting so much together, and yet emotionally they're still raw, pure expressions of id. The meeting of toddler and parent can only be a clash of two opposing forces, all that is evil and selfish meeting all that is good and right.
Think I'm exaggerating? Watch toddlers interacting with one another and imagine them as grown-ups acting the same way. It's dark.
All the toddler's parent can do is have faith that eventually this craziness will pass. So hold firm, my parents-in-arms! And know that we have that secret weapon all toddlers lack: the long view.
They may win in the short-term, but we'll be driving them crazy well into adulthood.
Let's see who's winning in 20 years.