I have a way with children. By which I mean, there is a way in which I am with them, and that way rarely wavers regardless of age or intelligence or even how well I know them: I pay attention to them, and I speak to them as if they are reasonable and understand big words. My two-and-a-half year old nephew plays along with this very nicely: he lets me read books to him in Italian, and when I told him that his magnetic cars were "defying the laws of gravity," he gave a blank stare that I interpreted as new neuron pathways being kicked into gear.
Today, this child (whom I was allowing to push his own stroller down the street so that I didn't have to carry it, and to keep him occupied), steered his stroller into a ticking-down crosswalk and spun the stroller around in tight circles. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, gleefully, "Spinning and spinning and spinning!" Crazed with the fear of (nonexistent) oncoming traffic, I scooped him up into my arms and dragged him and the stroller across to the sidewalk. I then set him down and tried very hard to explain how crosswalk lights worked. "The little white man," I told him, the phrase tripping awkwardly off my tongue, "means we walk across. When the red hand flashes, we don't cross...unless we are already crossing, and then we hurry to the other side..." Shit. This was more complicated than I realized. But I was pleased at having made the effort, if unsure that any of it had sunk in. Because he is not my child, I neither know how many times he's been given this explanation before, nor worry if I'm failing him by not making it clearer, or by not having insisted that he hold my hand in the first two crosswalks of that stroll, or by allowing him to walk at all when I could be saving his energy by pushing him.
We were headed to a kids' Advent fair, and once we arrived there, it wasn't long before he spotted a stash of prizes lying around for a yet-to-be-played game. It was a short stack of tiny, red, plastic trains with tiny tracks to go with (and, as he preciously pointed out later, "a trail-uh"). As soon as he laid eyes on this train, it was his in his mind. His mom (who we met there) disabused him of this notion, but throughout the afternoon, he kept suddenly remembering the trains and leaving us to run over to where they were (inexplicably) just sitting out for any toddler to covet. At one point, when we were trying to eat dinner, I was the one who chased after him, and when he reached for the pile, I spoke sternly to him. "Just because you see something doesn't mean you get to have it," I said sharply, and if he didn't get my meaning he understood my tone and was NOT happy with it. I changed the subject. A guitarist had begun playing "Feliz Navidad" and I asked my nephew if he wanted to sing. I didn't wait for him to answer before starting to sing myself, which was conspicuous because I have a loud voice and no one else in the group was singing. But he forgot about the train, and the scolding...
Until he remembered again, and had a full-scale, crying meltdown over it. And, because I am not his parent, I didn't have to soothe this meltdown. I was, in fact, across the room making an angel ornament out of paper and glue. I didn't know about the meltdown until he and his mom joined me and I could see the fresh tears drying on his face. The storm had passed, though. We were crafting now, and he could forget about the train that got away.
Until a kindly volunteer, an older woman who'd observed the child's unwavering fixation on this dumb little toy at many points throughout the afternoon, walked over to us. Filled with the holiday spirit and a warm heart, she presented this tortured, wet-faced toddler with one of the trains leftover after prizes had been handed out. A Christmas Miracle! His mother and I tried to impress upon him how grateful he should be. But was he listening?
His mom didn't let him open the package until he got home. The moment -- hours later -- when we walked in the door, he instantly figured out how to open the package, tore it open, let the pieces fall on the floor, and dived out of his stroller onto the fallen pieces, a man obsessed. Once the four pieces of plastic track were snapped together, the wind-up train could barely move on them without derailing, even without the trailer attached. Nevertheless, he was in love.
His mom and I stood in the kitchen as he futzed with this cheap little treasure, rehashing the game tape and concluding that (a) this angel woman had been very sweet to give him something he so desired and so treasured and (b) this was NO WAY to learn any kind of lesson about not throwing a tantrum. But honestly, what was there to do? We made coffee. We drank it.
An irony of parenthood: the more you care about being a great parent, the harder it is to believe you're succeeding at that task. Though I don't yet have children of my own, one doesn't need to spend much time with a parent to observe this impossible-to-avoid pothole on the road toward raising a functional adult. Every conversation, every interaction, becomes a monumental test. Am I turning my child into a sociopath, or teaching them a lesson that will form them into a super-citizen? Are they going to be scarred for life by this dressing-down, or this lack-of-a-dressing-down-because-I-couldn't-muster-the-energy, or are they even paying attention to a word that's coming out of my mouth? And, oh, the results of this test don't come in for a decade or two.
I seriously doubt my intelligent, precocious nephew will grow into a man who stomps and cries when he doesn't get to own something that he sees and likes. But regardless, for today: Thank you, well-meaning church lady. You brought genuine joy to an overtired, locomotive-loving toddler and almost certainly didn't ruin him for life.