In between programs, PBS Kids airs public service announcements aimed at parents, but my son loves watching these commercials more than many of the cartoons. He enjoys seeing the little kids with their mommies and daddies. At times throughout the day he points at the television. "Babies," he says, his tone indicating his desire.
The PSAs impart 60-second lessons such as dealing with your child's emotions and explaining infant development. The most affecting depicts children as video recorders, paying attention to their parents' every action and reaction, learning how to behave, communicate, and deal with the world from them. Though less extreme, they are not unlike those anti-drug commercials that ran after school in the 80's, where the addict son says to his addict father, "You, alright! I learned it by watching you."
The parents in the PBS spot, on the verge of losing their temper or doing something unseemly, each find some reservoir of patience and kindness that pulls them back from the brink when they find their child's eyes watching them.
In other words, like most commercials, it presents a total fantasy.
It's a few minutes before nine on a chilly grey day. My wife left for work about an hour ago.
My son “cooks” with eggs. He dumps a rainbow of plastic eggs into a cast iron pot and stirs them with a wooden spoon.
"Dada," he says.
He offers me the spoon to taste. It's hot, he indicates, holding his hand up and blowing air out through his mouth. We let it cool for a moment.
"That's good," I coo.
"Dada," he says.
He's leaning both hands on his plush firetruck, squatting to push it across the floor. He stops and waves me to follow, mumbling gibberish. I pull the toy dump truck behind him, both of us making vrrm vrrm noises until we reach the back of the kitchen.
"Dada," he says.
He's walking backwards and doing a little hop step. He drops his head and hands to the ground in a downward dog position. I take a similar pose above him and he's all giggles. He thinks its the funniest thing in the world to crawl around my arms and legs.
"Dada," he says. "Hide."
I secure myself in the pantry and steal a look at my cellphone. It's three minutes past nine. Lunch comes at eleven, followed by nap.
I'm in for a long morning.
You're so good with him, people tell me. You're very patient.
But there are times when no amount of patience is enough. On mornings or afternoons like this, when going out isn't an option and we have no plans and the hours stretch before us broken up into activities that each last for only one or two minutes, a funny feeling descends on me.
I'm content with basic, childish pleasures. I could build with blocks for hours. Or roll cars down ramps to knock over bottles. And color – I love to color! But our attention spans are out of whack. I want to settle in and let my imagination run, while my son wants to dash off in a blink to something else.
We have moments of parallel play. He empties and then refills our drawer of containers while I wash the dishes, or scatters then stacks the cloth diapers as I fold them. But these instances, though growing in frequency as he approaches 2, are fleeting and unpredictable. Some days he'll be content to play imaginatively for a bit, and get upset if I sit with him or intrude. More often, he's a whirlwind of distracted energy, demanding that I be swept along with him from activity to activity, leaving a mess of blocks and pots and crayons in our wake.
Frustration comes quickly. Lids become stuck on bottles and he tosses the offending objects away. When I'm not able to attend to him – if I have to use the bathroom, say, his temper rises. He runs up to things he's not supposed to touch – the DVD player, the stove knobs, the toilet bowl – and says "no no no no" while touching them.
His irrationality spirals out of control. He shows me how he got his hand stuck in the door by sticking his hand in the door. When I move it away he throws himself on the floor for a brief kicking fit, then we're back to being best friends again.
This is not unusual behavior for a toddler, but it can be enough to drive a rational man loony.
I wonder how other parents do it.
My parents remind me developmental phases move fast. Language is emerging, concepts are coming together. A couple of months ago my son was a different kid and in two more months he'll be different still. Just go with it, they tell me. It'll pass.
Many days I do just that. I'm high energy. I like unstructured fun. But there are times when I snap. Hit my limit.
"That's it," I tell him.
The rain's lessened and there's still an hour to go to lunch. "We're going out."
"No no no no!"
I wrangle him up, then sit down with him in my lap. I begin to put his shoes on but he kicks his feet, shouting that he wants to go in the stroller. "Ok, fine," I say.
I move to pull on his jacket, ignoring his shoes. He can just wear his slippers if he wants to go in the stroller.
"Walk! Walk!" he screams. "No stroller."
"Cool, then get your shoes on."
But again he's kicking and screaming – this time no walk, he'd rather stroller. He bangs his head against my solar plexus, hard. Again and again.
"You can walk, you can stroller, I don't care, but we're getting out of the house!" I yell. “Be flexible.”
I drop an f-bomb somewhere in there. This kind of lose-lose situation, combined with his violence, aggravates me to no end.
And I find myself confronted by them several times a day. When he knocks a bowl of risotto to the floor because I won't serve him a smoothie, when he squirms free and runs away as I'm trying to lull him down for a nap, when he kicks my groin because he hates getting his diaper changed.
At times like these I get angry – and I mean really mad, like I've rarely been in my life, if only for a moment – and I lash out with bad words, then toss him in the crib on timeout.
He might become repentant before reaching his bedroom, but I proceed to leave him anyway. I need a moment or two to reign in my temper.
Later, when he's trying to fit play food back into a container and suddenly loses it, screaming at the toys and scattering them all over the floor, I blame myself because of those PSAs on PBS!
I worry about my son's ability to process anger, to control himself, to approach the world with a cool, discerning eye. I imagine my breaches of temper not only passed on to him, but magnified. "I learned it by watching you, dad," he'll tell me years later, when he's unable to hold down a steady job or relationship or play well with others in school.
I want to see a public service announcement assuring me that even when I'm having a bad day, when I'm easily annoyed by my toddler's antics, when he's testing boundaries and I'm in no mood for a test, he's going to be fine. I want that to be the tag line, even. "You can lose it, but your kid's going to be fine."
Maybe this would imply setting the bar low, but on the contrary, I think it celebrates human resilience. Our kids will be fine, no matter our mini-breakdowns.
I want commercials that say, sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath and pop a beer, because your toddler's crazy. And that's not your fault – they all are. And they turn out fine, mostly.
At least that's what I keep telling myself.