One morning, my then one-and-a-half-year-old son unlocked the child-safety latch of our bottom bathroom drawer. Upon finding my makeup, he began breathing heavily with excitement and staggering around. What a haul! What loot! Imagine his disappointment when, just as he was about to pry the shiny cap off a red lipstick, I picked him up and carried him out of the bathroom. I didn’t congratulate him on his discovery. I didn’t point him in the direction of the hallway’s white walls and say, “My home is your canvas. Go forth and create.” Instead, I ruined everything.
Before I had children, when I’d go to the grocery store and see a little kid in the cereal aisle screaming and crying, I’d shake my head. Why was it that every time I saw a toddler, he or she was throwing some kind of fit? What could be so difficult about spending the day playing, napping, and eating? Now, after living among their kind, I should apologize. Not to you, but to them. Here’s the sad truth: for toddlers, the world is a rough place full of squelched mysteries, restrained freedoms, and nonsensical commands. I think I’d rather be fourteen again than be a toddler.
What does an old, forgotten Goldfish cracker from the bottom of a car seat taste like? What kind of pattern does yogurt make when it splatters onto the floor? What sound do cookbook pages make as they are torn in half? These and many other great discoveries are often stopped by us, the big people in our toddlers’ lives.
How frustrating! What must it be like to get stopped by a security guard time and time again? To be constantly redirected and rerouted as you tried to go about your day, without an understanding of what you had done wrong? What if you sat down to read the newspaper and drink your coffee when suddenly – out of nowhere – some giant swooped down and plopped you in front of a pile of plastic blocks? You bet you’d protest. You’d holler your tush off.
So what’s the reward for a toddler’s natural curiosity? A little freedom and encouragement? No, just the opposite. Oppression! We pin them to furniture all day long: the stroller, the car seat, the high chair. All of the straps! All of the restraints! How maddening it must be to sit, captive, in front of a tray covered with food you can’t identify or don’t remember liking. No wonder it’s so often tossed to the floor.
And does anyone like being forced to perform for strangers? “Blow a kiss. Clap your hands. Wave ‘bye bye.’ Give Aunt Lisa a high five. Touch your nose. No, not your toes : your nose. Okay, now touch your toes. Blow another kiss. Let’s turn on some music. Dance. Dance!”
Do I need to even mention the language barrier? How much can these chubby-cheeked kids actually understand? Twenty percent? Thirty percent? Two percent? They don’t really understand us. We don’t really understand them. Every day must feel like an endless, torturous game of The $100,000 Pyramid. Anyone can see how badly toddlers want to communicate with the outside world. Does a day go by without a toddler picking up some object and holding it to his or her ear like a telephone? “Lo! Lo! Lo!” my son used to yell into a toy truck. Who was he calling? Was he trying to get help?
Of course, in the end, we parents still have to be the bad cop again and again – and again. Toddlers have to eat. They have to sleep. They can’t run into the street every time they notice an open door or scribble with indelible green marker all over the sofa. But I just want the record to reflect that I feel for them. And, in about fifty or so years, I want the toddlers of today to remember my solidarity with their cause and please treat me with care.