My son, Charlie, is 3 now and possessed with that indomitable toddler spirit that often drives parents mad. I find myself both fascinated and overwhelmed when he’s doing his thing in front of me.
I get nervous he’s going to hurt himself. I get exhilarated while watching him shine at simple little things. This is the age of wonder, I guess. But it comes at a price.
As any parent will tell you, toddlers are the most beautiful mess in a lifetime of beautiful messes.
Charlie makes me glad I was born. And if I’m telling the truth, he often makes me feel like my end is nigh, like a massive coronary is calling my name. At every turn, I hear my own voice and, man, I get so tired of the sound of it.
Charlie, get off the coffee table! Charlie, stop opening the fridge! Charlie, lift the toilet seat and stop playing with the avocados! And for God’s sake, don’t put Legos in your mouth!!! Raising a toddler is draining: physically, emotionally and psychologically. I lay down on my 50-year-old mattress at night, sink into the cradle of its aging sag and sigh the deep sigh of utter exhaustion. How did I get through this day?! How did Charlie?! He fell off the high monkey bars like six times in a row.
It would have taken me physically restraining him in order to keep him from taking that plunge over and over again. Was I wrong to let him do it? Am I a bad dad Did I let discipline and safety take a back seat to my worn-out nerves? Or did I finally, FINALLY, after so much hot air and reprimanding, check my own inhibitions in favor of letting a little boy find his own way?
My son is a good kid. But like so many good kids his age. A lot. In real time, it sucks. Nothing burns my energy or mind up like my own flesh and vital fluid throwing my commands back in my face. It takes a special kind of Zen to stand there trying to correct or pr0tect your own spawn from his own demise and remain cool and calm.
But when I’m lying in my bed at night, the air conditioner humming, my nerves settling down (maybe thanks to a little wine), and I think it all over, it makes so much more sense.
A stark realization rises from the fading day and it’s this: Toddlers who don’t listen to their parents all the time, or even most of the time, are probably better off than the ones who do.
Call me crazy, tell me I’m creating vast illusions in an attempt to soothe my shattered nerves, but I don’t know, I think I’m on to something. I think, after raising three toddlers of my own, I’m beginning to get it. Falling. Spilling. Getting stung. Scraping a knee on a woodpile they were told to get off of 90 times in the last three minutes. Burnt mouth roofs. Magic Marker walls. Lap full of Captain Crunch. Toys breaking from being used as a hammer. Poop on the floor right beside the toilet.
All of it. Everything. Every parenting request/demand/reprimand that was repeatedly ignored, all adds up to one sensational masterpiece of living called (you guessed it) experience. The ones who don’t listen, they’ll learn from their mistakes. They’ll connect the dots of intelligence-comes-from-learning in due time.
Free-spirited, largely uninhibited children are probably the ones who make this world a much better place. They’re the ones who grow up to the beat of their own drum, create art or technology or something worthwhile and lasting. They create happiness in others because they’ve learned it all along by walking their own walk, tripping up on their own missteps.
All the other kids, the ones who listen so well, whose eyes are slightly glazed over with the thin mist of perpetual obedience, they’re more than likely cubicle-bound, destined for a cul-de-sac joint. Just look at that kid of yours, running towards that shimmering horizon even as you scream, There’s poetry and promise in their eternal flight, isn’t there? And one day, they’re going to rule the world with that same reckless rejected we see growing up before our very eyes.