I’ve been there. So has every parent whose kid has ever been “that kid”: the hitter, the biter, the scratcher, the one the other parents use as a counter-example to get their kids to shape up. My children, a toddler and a teen, while generally charming and lovable people, have recently made me that kind of parent. Although it hasn’t come to that, I can see myself in a suburban fistfight to defend their honor.
The toddler, a boy, has discovered yelling. Also throwing. And hitting, scratching and biting. These last three, especially the biting, are cause for his daycare to fill out a form mandated by the state. Daycare pickup has become a fraught moment for me. I arrive each day steeling myself for the moment his teacher, an infinitely gentle and wise woman from Sri Lanka, presents me with the state-mandated incident report form and a pen to sign it with. It’s gotten so that I can read her body language – is she reaching for a form on that shelf, or is she just going for his lunchbox? Does she look particularly sympathetic and disappointed, or am I reading too much into her expression? Any day she doesn’t hand me the form is, by definition, a great day.
Maybe only another mother whose toddler bites can know how it feels. There’s guilt, of course, and a kind of shame that my kid has done this. Sometimes, sure, another kid has pulled his hair, snatched a toy, committed some pint-sized act of provocation that at least explains, though never excuses, his behavior. There are plenty of reasons why toddlers bite. Looking for explanations online, I’ve found sites proposing sensory integration training, gluten-free diets and rebirthing (that kid did spend a long time in my birth canal). More reasonable experts point to normal developmental issues of communication and control. Most of the time, I know, he’s reached out and hurt another kid for no reason at all, or for reasons unknown even to him, by-products of the giant emotions that play out inside his little mind and body.
When I ask him if he hurt his friend, he usually denies it. His tiny shoulders set in a stubborn stance, he’ll rock back on his heels and bellow “noooooooo!” Sometimes he’ll admit it, then laugh. These are the times that try a parent’s patience. And at times, like when he clocks his father in the temple with my cellphone, la Naomi Campbell, it almost makes me hate him. And yet these are also the moments I love him the most, a helpless, hapless love. All I want is to protect him, from his own moods and urges as much as from what anyone else would think of him, my little wrongdoer.
Worrying about what others think is a big part of parenting a biter. But the disapproval of others can also serve to cement parental loyalty. In writer Mikal Gilmore’s masterful family memoir, Shot Through The Heart, murderer Gary Gilmore’s mother recalls saving an infant Gary from drowning when he fell off a houseboat as a child. Years later, her son now a convicted killer, she tells him, “I loved you no more then than I do now.” I know just how she feels.
My toddler isn’t the only problem child in my house; there’s also my teenager. She doesn’t bite, scratch or hit. And these days she’s pretty together, at least in public: attractive, poised, well-spoken. But here’s the thing: she’s intense, a drama queen. All I want is to protect him, my little wrongdoer. She cries and yells every day. She can’t focus on anything, it seems, but Facebook. It takes hours, and dozens of reminders and arguments (and more tears) before she even starts her homework. Sometimes I think with dismay that she’s not like me at all. That perfect daughter I imagined when she was a baby, the one who would inherit all my good qualities – the bookworm, the hard worker, the do-gooder – she’s not that. Yet we’re alike in this way: we share the same weaknesses. This is true of both my kids. More than blond hair and a pointed chin, this is what I’ve passed on, their inheritance from me.
As a toddler I threw epic tantrums. The tiniest things upset me. In my baby book, my mother writes of me at two as “bold, active and funny” but prone to “tiny angry performances,” and predicts that I’ll “never be as eager to share and please people” as my older brother. Later, when I was around four, she wrote of my “mean temper” and said that I hated being interrupted and would just go on talking more loudly. “She frowns more than she laughs, and she constantly pretends.”
When I got older I lied, outrageously at times. I told the truth at other times, mostly when it was uncomfortable or got other people into trouble. I stole things. I talked back to adults, whether parent or teacher or librarian, loudly questioning whatever dictates they sent my way. I didn’t know what to do with my emotions. I cried a lot, yelled a lot, laughed inappropriately. When I try to remember how it felt to be a child, all I can think of is how much like me I already felt. I haven’t changed, but I have learned better how to be in the world.
It’s not that my kids and I are all that awful. Most of the time we’re warm, enthusiastic and likeable. And obviously every child has his or her moments – if tantrums and tears weren’t such a typical part of growing up, bookstores wouldn’t devote whole sections to books on how to deal with them. And yet I know we have this inborn thing in common; we’ll never be the kind of people who wait contentedly in long lines, the types who laugh and slap their knees and say, “What are you gonna do?” when someone loses their luggage or backs into their car. You won’t hear us replying, when the waiter brings us the wrong order, “It’s all good.” We’re not, in short, mellow.
While I often feel bad about it and wish I could have bequeathed them a more even temper, increasingly I realize that my problem children are lucky to have me, such an imperfect person, as their mother. My problem children are lucky to have me, such an imperfect person, as their mother. Because I know that life’s an uphill struggle, but that things get easier – that their strong feelings will become strengths, that they’re going to grow into the passion and energy that seems too big, too much, right now. It’s what I tell my teenager when she erupts in tears after yet another conflict with a teacher. And it’s what I whisper into the toddler’s ear, my face nestled into his sweat-dampened hair, as he falls asleep on my chest: It gets easier. Life bites sometimes, but pretty soon you no longer will.
Article Photo: Angie McKaig