Every now and then I get worried that maybe Ryan will turn out to be a shitty kid.
This is not the same as being troubled by his shitty behavior — all parents whose children are not bodhisattva have those moments.
I’m talking about moments when you look at your child while they’re doing something malodorous, maleficent, intolerable, and you think, What’s wrong with you?
The couple of times I’ve confronted the Woog with this query, I’ve been rightfully admonished by Mom.
She correctly pointed out that, even when it’s addressed to a grown-up, “What’s wrong with you?” is a disrespectful judgement masquerading as an honest question. And Mom and I do try to model not being completely full of it.
Furthermore, small children tend to be more literal than grown-ups, so if you ask a kid what’s wrong with them they might take a crack at trying to answer it, because it hasn’t occurred to them to reject the premise.
Whereas another grown-up might respond, “Your stupid f——g face is what’s wrong with me,” it’s unlikely that a small child will have the necessary footing to externalize the matter.
It’s occurred to me that maybe the worst thing about saying “What’s wrong with you?” to a kid is that it undermines one of the primary lessons we try to instill in our children: that who you are is made up of many instances of what you do. A growth mindset, to use some contemporary jargon.
Do right, be appreciated and feel good. Do wrong, apologize and make up for it, or your mother and I will take all your toys and no one will like you and you’ll die alone and unloved.
“What’s wrong with you?” reverses the growth mindset order. It assumes that what you do is made up of a single fixed instance of who you are. That might work for 17th Century Calvinists, but it’s not really our jam.
I know all of this already. The words that escape my mouth are an expression of fear: fear that when Ryan does something I think is shitty, maybe it’s a sign, a warning, an indication that my son is going to be a shitty person.
To hang all of this on another grown-up is, in my opinion, a lot of what’s wrong with us in the world today.
We don’t have nearly enough information about what other people do — not even people we’re close to — to warrant a summary judgement about the kind of person they are. Not to mention: who the hell asked us anyway?
We do it nevertheless, because we suck.
To hang all of this on a five-year old is simply absurd, because to think about and talk about a five-year old in terms of being rather than becoming is absurd.
We do that anyway because we suck, and because a five-year old’s behavior is sometimes so outrageous that it short-circuits our predisposition to give them the benefit of the doubt. And because maybe we’re feeling a type of way about their parents, so apple -> tree.
As far as Ryan’s concerned, there’s a particular irony. In this area, Ryan practices what we preach.
True, he is prone to occasional outbursts like, “I’m going to put you in the garbage,” and “You don’t live here anymore,” when he’s pissed off at me for the latest boundary-enforcement atrocity. But his most frequent expression of anger toward me is, “You’re acting like a bad guy.”
Me asking Ryan what’s wrong with him also ignores the many instances in which he’s sweet, and considerate, and kind. Fortunately, those instances are never too few or too far between to remember.
Last Tuesday, for instance, Jack and I swung by school to pick Ryan up. We were headed to Jack’s pediatrician’s office for the Munch’s final Synagis shot of the year.
By the end of our outing, Ryan had exhibited a benevolence and generosity of spirit that frankly blew me away. But it didn’t start out like that.
Ryan no longer naps. That he still needs to nap was painfully evident that afternoon when we picked him up.
We were pressed for time, if not running late exactly. In order for us to make our appointment in Samara at 4 PM, Jack had been woken early from his nap, had his diaper ripped off, had a new one pasted on, and then had a bottle jammed in his face.
Now as I rushed the Woog from the playground in front of his preschool, I was staring down the barrel of being double-booked at a pediatrician’s office with a baby and an ornery five-year old.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’d rather listen to someone eating a box of Snyder’s pretzels than be stuck in a doctor’s office with one kid, let alone two. Yet the Woog was the one having a meltdown. In the parking lot.
“I don’t want to leave,” he moaned. “I want to stay and play with my friends.”
“I know, Woogie, but we have to take Jack to the doctor’s office. You’ll see your friends tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to see them tomorrow. I want to see them today.”
“Well, you did see them today,” I said with that fake cheerful voice I’m remarkably bad at. “And you’ll get to see them tomorrow too. Isn’t that great? Let’s go.”
I hustled the weepy Woog into his car seat. “Heyyy,” he whined as I buckled him in. “Where are my Daniel Tiger figures?”
“Huh?” I said. “What’re you talking about?”
He was apparently mourning the loss of some Daniel Tiger figures he’d had in the car that morning when his mother dropped him off at school.
“They’re in the other car,” I said, hastily. “We’ll get ‘em when we get home.”
“I wanna get them now. I don’t want you to pick me up. I want Mommy to pick me up.”
“Mommy’s working,” I said. “I always pick you up from school.” It seemed I was addressing some maudlin amnesiac, briefing him on the daily logistics of his previous life before he got hit on the head.
“Plus,” I added, “you get to come with me and Jack to Jack’s doctor’s appointment.” I laid out this dubious opportunity like it was dessert. “Just like Mommy explained this morning.”
“Mommy said she was going to pick me up from school.”
I looked at Ryan askance, wondering where he got that from. I’d find out where he got that from a little later.
“We need to go home and get them,” Ryan said. He ground his dirty knuckles into his eyes.
In another venue, I might have blurted out, “Not gonna happen,” and slammed the door.
But with two kids in tow and what promised to be a slog getting to the doctor’s office, I gambled on a little diplomacy.
It was apparent that Ryan was on the verge of completely falling apart. Not something you want to have happen — well, anytime, but definitely not during a slog.
Plus, I had an ace in my sleeve. I’d planned on keeping it in reserve, but I was holding just about the sorriest hand dealt in the annals of parenthood.
“Listen. Ryan.” I crouched down next to him. “It’s important for you to be at the doctor’s office today with Jack. Do you know why?”
Ryan had stopped sniffling. “No. Why?”
I checked my watch. “I’ll tell you as soon as we get going.”
I closed the door, jumped in the driver’s seat, and peeled out of the parking lot.
The trump card I was holding is a little like revenge: it’s best played cold.
As we passed through the light at City Ave. I asked the Woog if he wanted to pick a song. Letting Ryan pick a song is always good for a two minute temporary distraction.
He thought about it, and finally made his selection. I glanced in the rear-view mirror.
He looked okay — held together with chewing gum and baling wire, but okay. Meltdown averted — for now. He needed an imperative to focus on or we’d be back in the barrel. I threw my trump card on the table.
“So, Woogie, the reason it’s important for you to be there with Jack is because Jack is going to get a pinch at the doctor’s office.”
“Ohhh,” Ryan said. He reached over and held Jack’s hand. “It’s okay, Baby Jack. I’ll hold your stickers for you.”
Jack smiled. Attention from his big brother. Second only to breastmilk.
“That’s the thing, Woogie. Baby Jack doesn’t even get any stickers after he gets a pinch, because he’s a baby.”
“I know that,” Ryan said. “Babies can’t have stickers. They could put them in their mouth and that would be dangerous.”
“That’s right,” I said.
Huh, I thought. Apparently the kid is only situationally deaf. Things were looking up.
Predictably, negotiating traffic on the way to Jack’s doctor’s office was like trying to suck a grapefruit through a straw. The left turn is the bane of Main Line driving. I’ll leave it at that.
The car’s speakerphone rang. It was Mommy.
“Hello, Mommy,” I said.
“Do you have Ryan?” The question was not casual.
“Uh, yeah. Why?”
“I’m at the school. I thought I was picking him up.”
Well, that’s a double-sized crap sandwich on toast, I thought. I chanced this trail of tears so she wouldn’t have to leave work.
“Well,” I said, “try not to think of all the fun you’ll be missing. Love you, bye.”
The parking lot at the pediatrician’s office was completely full, so we had to park at the Acme next door.
(Here’s a pro tip from an apparent amateur: don’t make an appointment at the pediatrician’s office for a time after school ends. You won’t be alone).
Confession/clarification: my earlier use of the trump card metaphor to describe my little Woog-charming ruse is inexact. A trump card is played all at once.
With small children, however, some ruses have to be meted out as-needed. These ruses consist less of a single card than a whole hand — one which you have to play in the right order to avoid having your ass handed to you on a paper plate.
So I held some cards in reserve. I figured that as Ryan’s condition deteriorated he might start to wonder why in the hell it was exactly he was sitting in a pediatrician’s office and not at home playing in the basement with Buzz Lightyear.
The moment wasn’t long in coming. Since the office was standing room-mostly, we had to sit at the kids’ table on the well side. Ryan had rifled through the book bin, consumed all the reading material like peanut M&Ms, and now he was getting grouchy.
“I wanna watch Tayo,” he said, flinging a book on the table and pointing at the little kid’s TV over in the sick side.
“You have to watch whatever’s on,” I said, bouncing the Munch on my knee.
Ryan let out a roaring yawn. “Can we go?”
I shook my head.
“When can we go?” he asked.
“Why don’t you go get a book to read to Baby Jack?” I asked Ryan, suppressing the urge to tell him to go stick his head in the toilet.
“I don’t want to.”
“Then sit and read quietly to yourself,” I said. “Jack and I are having a good time by ourselves, aren’t we, Munchie?”
Jack turned to look at me. If babies could roll their eyes …
Ryan sat propping up his sullen face on one hand. Suddenly he started complaining about being bored. He wanted me to ask the people behind the desk to put Tayo on the TV.
Time to play another card.
“Ryan, do you know why it’s important for you to be here this time when Jack gets a pinch?”
“No,” Ryan mumbled through his hand.
“Last time Jack got a pinch he was very upset, and I don’t know if I’m as good as you are at helping him feel better. So I need your help keeping Jack company when he gets his pinch. I need you to help him feel better and not be upset. Can you do that?”
Ryan straightened up. “Sure!” he said. “I’ve gotten lots of pinches.”
He turned his attention to Jack. “Pinches only hurt for a little while and then you feel better!” He threw his arms out wide to encompass the sheer capaciousness of feeling better.
Call me the Woog Whisperer. Ryan was still delivering an animated lecture on the respective merits of the Cars movie band-aids versus the Toy Story movie band-aids when the nurse came out from the back and announced: “Jack?”
I stood. “Our number’s up, gents. Let’s roll.”
The routine in the back abides. Ryan watched quietly as I undressed the Munch and placed him on the scale. 14 pounds, 1 oz. Almost a full pound heavier than last weigh-in.
I leaned down and gave Jack a smooch on his forehead. “Keep puttin’ it away, Munchie.”
The nurse excused herself to go get the Synagis. After I changed Jack’s diaper and partially dressed him, I asked Ryan if he’d like to help me hold Jack’s hands when the nurse came back with the pinch.
“Sure!” the Woog replied. “I’m good at holding hands!”
I smiled. “You’re the best at it, Boogie Woogie.”
He held Jack’s right hand and began chattering in that endearing grown-up voice he uses when he’s holding court.
“I’m sorry you can’t get any stickers, Baby Jack, but you’re a baby. Stickers are only for big boys. When you’re a big boy, you can have stickers too when you get a pinch —”
Jack stared at Ryan with a beatific smile as his brother perorated about the facts of life. The nurse came back in with the needle. I reached out and held Jack’s other hand.
“Sometimes I cry when I get pinches,” Ryan assured his little brother. “But not when they’re very gentle. When you’re a big boy, pinches won’t hurt as much, and you’ll get a pretzel too. But you don’t eat pretzels right now because you’re a baby.”
When the needle went in, the expression on Jack’s face changed from delight and wonder to alarm.
As he turned his adoring gaze from his brother back into the room, a red tide of awareness swept over Jack’s face. Something hurt — a lot. He began to cry, I imagined as much because of the interruption as because of the pain.
As Jack howled and his little arms trembled, Ryan reached out with his other hand and began softly stroking Jack’s head. “It’s okay, Baby Jack,” he cooed. “It’s okay. You’ll feel better.”
The Woog leaned in even closer to his squalling brother, which was remarkable to me because Ryan hates the sound of babies crying worse than a new mother.
The Munch kicked his legs in pain and anger. “It’s okay,” Ryan assured him. “You’ll feel better, Baby Jack, you will.”
The Woog repeated his reassuring incantation — “It’s okay, Baby Jack,” “You’ll feel better” — for only about half a minute before Jack’s crying died down like the winds of a storm.
Ryan’s eyes remained fixed on Jack, who turned his whimpering face back toward his big brother. Ryan continued to caress the Munch’s head. “Do you feel better, baby?” he asked the sniffly Munch. “You’re a sweet baby.”
I stood mute, dumbfounded, in awe. I have never seen a child radiate such pure loving presence. Five minutes earlier, this kid was bitching about not being able to watch some talking bus cartoon.
As I dressed Jack, I turned to Ryan. “Woogie, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate you coming with us.”
He stared at the floor. “Yeah.”
“And I appreciate you helping Jack feel better.”
Ryan nodded. He seemed drained by the experience, like an old time exorcist after casting out the evil spirit.
I hoisted the Munch up off the exam table. “Jack’s very lucky to have such a great big brother.”
Ryan drew in a big breath, looked up at me, and nodded again. “Can we go now?” he asked.