Last week, I posted a link to an essay about the “joys” of raising a toddler. Specifically, the essay was a defense of parents who get the side-eye from strangers when their toddlers act… well, like toddlers, in public. After I got home from my grandfather’s funeral on Friday evening, I had a chance to read through some of the comments that essay inspired (comments left on this site, I should say, not the original source), and I was surprised and kind of disappointed by what I read. There was an implication — a pretty explicit implication, actually — that bad behavior = bad parenting. There was also an implication that if a person had younger siblings growing up or has friends with kids or works in a place that kids frequent, then that person knows what it’s like to raise a toddler. Wrong.
If you aren’t a parent or a teacher or a nanny or some other adult who is with the same children for an extended period of time day after day after day for months and months, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just don’t. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say that even if you ARE a parent, but it’s been more than ten years since you parented a toddler, there’s a good chance you’ve forgotten just what it’s like to be around a two-year-old for hours and hours every day. That shit is HARD. Toddlers are fucking BONKERS. Parenting an almost two-year-old — a rambunctious, precocious, all-boy two-year-old — is the most exhausting, challenging, nerve-racking, rewarding thing I’ve ever done. And if you haven’t done it yourself, you really don’t know what it’s like. I don’t care if you had a little brother ten years younger growing up or you work in a Walmart where lots of families with little kids go shopping or you spent a couple summers babysitting your neighbor’s toddler son when you were in high school. None of that truly prepares you for the front line of parenting a two-year-old.
I’m a good parent. Both Drew and I are really good parents. We read to Jackson all the time and talk to him constantly and feed him healthy foods and plan lots of activities and outings we think he’d enjoy. We play with him and spend lots of time outdoors and take him on train rides and help him foster friendships. We don’t over-indulge him. He isn’t spoiled. His toy-count is limited, as is his TV-viewing. We love him so, so much and he knows it. He is well-cared for and safe. He is a very happy child. He is also a colossal pain in the ass sometimes. I mean, he’s a toddler.
I spend a ton of time with toddlers these days and, while their personalities and temperaments vary, I don’t know one toddler or parent of a toddler who doesn’t admit to the occasional tantrum. Some kids throw more tantrums than others, and some are more public. I happen to have a toddler who throws a lot of tantrums (he also has a lot of personality). He screams and cries and pulls hair and pinches and kicks and hits. And that’s just how he treats ME on a given morning when I’m trying to get him dressed for the day. I’d love to say this bad behavior is isolated to the mornings in his bedroom, private and out of view of judgmental eyes and ears. But it’s not. Jackson behaves this way in the grocery store, in the coffee shop, on the playground, in the stairwell. I have been embarrassed and ashamed more times than I can count because I see those side eyes when he has a normal meltdown and I know people are thinking I’m to blame (or, worse, that there’s something really wrong with my child).
Sometimes I think I’m to blame. Even though I know I’m a really good parent, I sometimes wonder why my kid isn’t really good all the time. What’s wrong with him that he’d slap me across the face? In public? I wonder. (True story). What did I do wrong that he would behave that way? Do I not love him enough? Do I not set enough boundaries? Do I set too many? Should I be giving him more time outs? Fewer time outs? Different kinds of time outs? Am I too easy on him? Too hard?
The truth is, I’m probably doing a lot wrong, but I’m not sure that has anything to do with my son’s tantrums. He’s just being a toddler. True, he’s probably a little more wound up than average, but he’s still in the range of what’s normal for a little boy his age. He screams and cries and pulls hair and pinches and kicks and hits. He also says thank you all the time without being prompted and he gives the sweetest hugs and he laughs louder and longer than any other kid I’ve ever met. He’s a toddler.
I’m still new to parenthood, but after nearly two years, I’ve been at it long enough to know that phases are just that: phases. They come and they go. And bad behavior in toddlerhood is, thank God, just a phase. Eventually, children learn that tantrums — especially in public — are inappropriate. They learn to express their feelings through words — words that many of them simply don’t have at two years old. All the crazy energy coursing through their still-tiny bodies calms down a bit. The painful growth spurts slow. The teething comes to an end. And the social skills they’re learning at the playground or in preschool or in the sandbox sharpen and they realize that hitting isn’t nice and that sharing is a better way to make friends.
The learning curve — for both the children and the first-time parents — is steep in toddlerhood. But eventually the difficult lessons do pay off, I think. I hope. Those awkward experiences in the grocery store when your two-year-old throws himself on the floor and wails loudly because you won’t buy him the sugary cereal finally dissipate and, hopefully, you have a child who understands boundaries and that in life, we don’t always get what we want and that’s ok. But, while a parent has the benefit of a long-term pay-off, the random passerby does not. He or she sees the public meltdown and that’s it. She doesn’t see a year or two from now when that same toddler turns into a sweet, polite 4-year-old who still may whine from time to time, but no longer beats his tiny fists against the floor, red-faced and out of breath because his mother told him it was time to go home for lunch.
So, random passers-by and people who side-eye my fellow warriors in this battle called parenthood, let me tell you something: what you see in the five-minute snippet of my life, of our lives, is just a tiny percentage of the full picture. I know it’s annoying and I’m sorry for that, but it is not indicative of my role as a parent or my son’s development or his ability to cope or interact with people. It is just five minutes in the life of a toddler — five minutes that may seem like an absolute eternity (especially to ME), but is really just a blip on the radar. Stick around another five minutes and you’ll see a different kid — a happy, laughing, sweet little boy — one I hope to see more and more of as he matures and learns to handle small disappointments with better grace.
But for now, I have a crazy two-year-old with boundless energy, strong opinions, and a temper that rivals Medusa. It’s my job to help him learn how to express himself appropriately and how to rein it all in when necessary. But that takes time. It just doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t all happen from the comfort and privacy of our home. Much of the learning will happen outside, in public, around people like you. And it’s going to take a while, so please, when you see us out and about and my son starts acting like a colossal pain like he does sometimes, save your judgment. Show some compassion. This shit is HARD. And I’m doing the very best I can.