Our daughter Cordelia is now twenty months old. As the loyal and, sadly, honest biographer of her young life, I must relate that she has truly begun to discover her inner obnoxiousness.
Whenever we try to deny Cordelia constant access to things she wants (the outdoors, liquor bottles, mommy), she cuts loose with long strings of horrible, blood-curdling screams. It is then our parental duty to harden our hearts to her cries of woe. This is, in fact, twice as easy as you probably think it is.
Right now, our job is to break Cordelia’s will, the way you might break a fine stallion. We need to hold her back from what she wants for so long that the effort of screaming outweighs the benefits of getting what she wants. We need to sap her strength so much that she loses the ability to want, but not so much that she loses the ability to eat.
So the process basically goes something like this: she tries to swallow a penny. I stop her. She screams, flings her body backwards, and smacks her head into the wall. She then wails at me for a while, and I find myself eerily unable to even fake sympathy for her.
Also, she is now reliably feeding herself. Toddlers do not understand the concept of gross, so I am spending a lot of my meals staring morosely at my plate, ignoring what my daughter is doing. Then I will look up and see her take a massive handful of salami, drop it into a glass of water, fish it out, and noisily gnaw on it. And then drink the water. It’s unpleasant to watch, but at least it’s not half as disgusting as breast-feeding.
Awww! She Took Something That Wasn’t Hers!
Cordelia is now old, mobile, and conscious enough to enjoy playgrounds. We take her all the time. It gives her the chance to run and climb and interact with other children. It also teaches her valuable lessons about the obnoxiousness of other humans and the nature of the cold, cruel world in which she lives.
An illustrative anecdote.
The local mall has these big plastic cars in its play area. Kids love them. Through some miracle of organization, there is always one less car than there are children who want to play with them. Watching a pair of three year olds learn their first lessons in the Art of War while jockeying for control of the cars is, of course, hugely entertaining.
Cordelia was playing in one of the cars. She got distracted and wandered away from it for a few seconds. A five year old girl, seeing the free car, jumped into it. And Cordelia, realizing that someone had seized something she saw as hers, pointed at the little girl and started screaming.
My wife and I tried to get Cordelia to stop. We picked her up. We shushed her. We tried to interest her in something else. But she kept pointing at the other little girl and screaming. The other girl made a valiant effort to ignore the din and enjoy her play. But after a few minutes of this, she got out of the car and stomped over to her mother, pointing back at Cordelia and shouting “SHE MADE ME VERY ANGRY!”
Cordelia ran and regained possession of the vehicle.
I can see absolutely no positive or valuable lessons Cordelia could have learned from this incident. Through sustained obnoxiousness, she obtained what she wanted. As parents, there wasn’t even much that we could do. We tried to get her to stop screaming, but you can only take that so far. I was hardly going to take my sock off and jam it into her mouth. Very few parenting books give that as an option. So Cordelia ended up learning, thanks to that other little girl’s thin skin, that crude and repellent behavior will get you want you want if you just keep at it long enough.
But, on the other hand, maybe Cordelia learned the right lesson. Maybe the real problem was the other girl, for being such a weak-willed little punk. All she did was teach Cordelia that it is possible to crush the weak. And I suppose if you have to learn that lesson, you might as well do it as the crusher instead of the crushee.
Very Satisfying Parental Moment
Cordelia fell while walking down some plastic steps. I managed to grab her foot to keep her from tumbling too far, so she only got a solid clunk on the head.
She sat up, shook her head a little bit, got up, and continued to play.
Another father watched this. He looked at me, surprised, and said “Tough kid.”
Other Things Cordelia Is Learning On the Playground
This world contains only limited resources of things people want. Sometimes, to get them, you must succeed in a conflict.
When someone is running straight at you, the odds of them stopping are directly proportional to the amount of physical harm you are capable of causing them (in Cordelia’s case, none). Therefore, if you are a one year old, you should get out of the way.
The vast majority of the time, other people are an obstacle.
When you fall, daddy will try to catch you. Usually. Daddy feels that his job as a parent is to keep you from being injured, not to keep you from falling.
I am increasingly feeling that the “Stranger Anxiety” children always get around Cordelia’s age is an entirely rational response to the evidence of their eyes.
“It’s OK, Susie! You Can Do Anything If You Just Wish Hard Enough!”
How many years will it be before Cordelia watches TV shows that aren’t retarded?
I’m sure that I’m in the wrong here. I’m sure that, somewhere, there is a raft of scientific evidence to show that all TV shows for pre-schoolers have to be these cuddly, warm fuzzy, saccharin nightmares of pure, unconditional love. It helps the little ones come to terms with the fact that they’ve been shoved out into this world that really doesn’t give a fuck about them.
Gravity will continue to suck them down and pull their little falling faces into rocks, and it doesn’t care how sad this makes them. Chocolate won’t appear in their hands just because they want it to be so. Mommy and daddy, despite putting on a good show of affection, occasionally and inexplicably want to disappear from the room together from time to time. They’re starting to realize that it’s a cold world, and the occasionally bit of fictionalized pap which pretends that they are in some way significant is probably a good thing.
But look. We are trying to put the First American Empire together here. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to hand our kids guns and send them off to pacify the brown people, and anyone who objects to this is helping the terrorists. Which means that, at some point, we’re going to have to stop showing them the gooey “Everybody loves everybody.” crap. Not to mention the fact that those shows are driving me out of my mind.
So when can it STOP?
I’m not sure what the cut-off age is, but it’s probably somewhere around five. I know this because, when I was five, my favorite TV show was Batman. I loved the cliffhangers, where the Caped Crusader and his lovable sidekick were about to be drowned in plastic, or squished in a gigantic card printing machine, or simply administered a charmingly retro, entirely lethal beating by a pack of thugs. I loved this when I was five, because it had not occurred to my undeveloped brain that there were so many ways a person could die. “Don’t Worry, Billy. You Don’t Have To Be Afraid Of Anything If You Just Cover Your Brain With Happy Dust!”
Sure, we might not show things like this to kids, because they might get scared and have nightmares and run into our rooms late at night and interrupt our sex. But face it. Kids are odd. The things that will terrify any given child are ENTIRELY RANDOM.
Cordelia is driven into fits of screaming terror by the Teletubbies’ vacuum cleaner. And she is terrified of the cute stuffed bunny I bought her, which has five legs and two heads. She might just as easily be terrified by Oscar the Grouch, or the Sesame Street theme song, or some other small, random thing it never occurred to us might terrify them.
So just give up. That’s what I say.
“Come On, Jenny. You Know That Your Lies Will Always Be Exposed In the Harsh Light of the Sun.”
The insanely happy shows probably stop working on little kid brains about the time their owners start experiencing life and realizing that grown-ups were lying to them.
No amount of messages about how people can always love each other and work together in harmony will overcome the head-clearing effect of one good, solid playground ass-thumping. And the world comes lavishly equipped with opportunities to get confused, not understand, and just plain fail, no matter how much you Think You Can Do It.
Now I’m Starting To Depress Myself
TV shows and books for small children are the narrative equivalent of the demeaning, frilly, lace trimmed outfits we sometimes put them in. They are for our benefit, not theirs.
For the average grown-up, life is a slow, choking process. We all feel like we’re being suffocated by the giant, sweaty balls of a Star Trek fan, covering our face and slowly shutting off our air, and as we struggle pitifully and gag on the little curly hairs caught in our teeth, we think “It shouldn’t be like this for the babies!”
So we show the kids the blandest, cheeriest pabulum, the dramatic equivalent of jars of strained peas we shovel into them. We tell them that everyone is nice and you can do anything if we just dream it. It helps kill time until they can believe for themselves that there is a Heaven where good people are rewarded and a Hell where people we dislike will burn.