A few lessons learned while raising a toddler.
My secret weapon was a little wooden train.
I ordered it from IKEA, along with a shoe rack for our hallway. It was cheap, colorful, and compatible with my son’s Brio track, and my plan was to keep it in my purse, still packaged, to pull out when things got really hard.
Like if he refused to get in his carriage again, or freaked out because some other kid at the library had a toy that may or may not look similar to one he already owned — maybe even had brought with him — and he wanted it. The kinds of problems you get into with two-year-olds, the kind that parents with older kids usually shrug off, maybe even with a wistful smile, but that torture you, that make you dread the next time they’ll happen (and the fact that they could happen at any given time makes them even more worth dreading).
When things got bad, I thought, I’d just pull out the train. What a distraction! My son’s surprise and delight would cut through everything else (he really loves trains). I felt relieved and will admit with no shame that in a way, the train was as much for me, as it was for him.
And then we opened the rest of the package. As some part of me had fleetingly expected, my son saw the shoe rack my husband was trying to put together, and wanted it. I saw not just this moment, but all the coming days, as a source of conflict, my son constantly throwing shoes everywhere to get at the rack. Disorder and dirt would reign.
And so, out came the train.
And my son loved it, and he’s never looked at the shoe rack again, except to obediently put his own shoes onto it.
If you asked me to sum up what it’s like to be the parent of a two-year-old, this is it. Nothing is certain. Timing is often off. Sometimes things work out. Other times, they don’t. At least there are cute shoes involved.
It’s not that we don’t discipline my son. It’s not that we don’t impose limits or structure. But as most parents of toddlers know, so much of that so often seems useless when it comes to their insistence, their stubbornness, simply their lack of information about the world.
At one point in Les dessous des chefs-d’oeuvre, an art history book that explains different things going on in paintings, the authors describe 18th century upper class French family life. At the time, parents believed very young children were godless, impolite animals, and sent them to the countryside to be brought up by someone else for a few years.
Although I’d probably miss my son, and miss many of the wonderful moments we do actually share together, I have to admit, a part of me is still in favor of this theory.
When I say there are good moments, of course there are. Most parents of toddlers talk about the unabashed hugs, the moments of discovery, the funny things their kid says or does, their little developing personality. I’m no exception. But sometimes even those moments come with a challenge. Take what happened this afternoon.
We decided to visit the Alsatian Christmas market, located outside the Gare de l’Est. Unusual gifts for family in the US, as well as gingerbread and pretzels beckoned. The market ended up being much smaller than we’d expected, and there were no delicious Alsatian soft pretzels slathered in butter, after all, but we still had a nice time. At one point, full of Alsatian Christmas spirit, I bought a large cookie for my son. “Look!” I told him delightedly, “It’s the Gingerbread Man!”
Ever since we first read it, he’s found this fairytale fascinating. I think a lot of it has to do with the titular character’s rebellious run, which he seems to unintentionally imitate in wild moments along our decidedly less bucolic streets. But part of it is also because he’d never seen an actual gingerbread man cookie in real life.
My son was excited and amazed. We took pictures, we laughed with him, he held the cookie tight. But he refused to eat it.
He screamed when we wrapped it up as he ran through the hallways of the Metro. We gave in and gave it back to him when he was safely in his carriage on the train. And he held it and looked at it, and I felt such a rush of understanding and love.
I’ve always had a hard time eating pastries that look like living things. Or chocolate bunnies, for that matter. I also still can’t shake the belief that stuffed animals are alive. I feel bad for the ones my son seems to pay attention to less than others. I keep two of my own childhood favorites on the shelf over my marital bed.
I didn’t want my son to feel this way about inanimate objects, but somehow, it seems he does. And although it could become problematic, it’s also endearing. I watched him stare in respectful fascination at the Gingerbread Man in his sticky little hands. I thought of how he loves to chat with my two childhood stuffed animals sometimes, or how we sometimes hear him singing a song about a donkey to the toy cow that shares his bed (there are no French or English children’s songs about cows, as far as we know).
As we exited the Metro, I became resigned to the fact that the Gingerbread Man would be a part of our lives, at least for the next few days. I wondered if I could preserve the cookie in some way, even while doubting it. I thought of how I was going to get the stickiness off his sheets tomorrow, because surely he’d want to sleep with his new friend tonight.
When we stopped by the bakery for a baguette, our baker couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to eat the gingerbread cookie (which did smell delicious). She kept clarifying to him that it was a cookie, and asked for a bite. He (my son, not the cookie) shook his head “no”.
We said our goodbyes and headed up the street to our building. Then, as we waited in the lobby for the elevator, I looked down at the gingerbread man and saw that one of his arms was missing.
Maybe the baker had gotten through to my son, and he’d understood something more about how the world works. Maybe it was just because we hadn’t had lunch yet. But suddenly and unexpectedly, just like the clever fox in the fairytale, he proceeded to devour a good portion of his former friend, making appreciative sounds with every bite.