Little Bear was happily riding his bike in the garden at nursery the other day when another kid, let’s call him Steve, started following him. Steve got closer and closer until he started playfully bumping into Little Bear’s bike and giggling. Should I intervene?
Maybe not, Little Bear is getting cross with Steve but no one’s getting hurt. In fact, Little Bear might even be learning some life skills about dealing with annoying people without parents swooping in. Maybe it’s an opportunity for him to learn how to talk to Steve and persuade him to- Wait! Little Bear’s buddy, Suzie, has just stepped in and pushed over Steve’s bike. Intervene? But how?
Suzie then takes Steve’s bike and rides off in victory shouting ‘My turn! My turn!’ Intervene? Hell no.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Socrates asked what Justice was. Ever since, adults have struggled with this question. What is fair, how should we live our lives, how should we treat other people? Not so for a toddler. Toddlers have an innate knowledge of justice. They’ve understood it with absolute certainty months before they can even say it. For them, the obvious nature of justice requires swift and outraged retribution for anyone who challenges its unbreakable rules.
When a toddler is well rested, then Justice is kinder, calmer and has more giggles. Justice can be reasoned with. On the other hand, the tired toddler has no charity. When their dispensing their Justice, no quarter should be given, and inconsistency is expected and utterly fair. Whether they want the Weetabix dry and wet at the same time, or want their trousers off whilst staying warm, no clemency should be given to the parent who can’t square these circles.
Your toddler is always one-step ahead. Every problem that pops up, sleeping, moving, eating (or not eating), you’ll finally get to grips with it just as they move onto the next thing that knocks you for six. Like a bug that keeps on mutating each time your immune system gets use to it.
But this step forward’s different. Finally Little Bear’s moving onto familiar ground. He’s honing his ‘People Influencing’ skills, and starting to negotiate. The toddler’s outmanoeuvring of our ability to parent is no longer an unconscious leap of his developing body, it’s now moving into conscious thinking of how he can outsmart his carers. Working in negotiation for the last 10 years, this latest shift is making me proud (especially when he outsmarts me). He’s gone all these little ‘needs’ inside him, and now he can start thinking about smarter ways of getting them.
The toddler's vocab gets bigger by the day. But however many new ‘words’ they pick up, half the ones they use are always the old favourite: No. There're are plenty of toddlers managing just fine with this one word.
In a short space of time Little Bear's really mastered the ‘no’. All in all he’s got 5 different no’s he uses during the week.
1. The sweet and patronising ‘no’
He tilts his head at us and gently frowns. It’s often accompanied by the wagging of a finger. This comes when we’ve broken a toddler rule: such as suggesting that he shouldn’t switch the washing machine off mid-cycle; that he might like to eat the food in front of him instead of painting the walls with it; or that he needs to take a nap whilst in the middle of playing with the fire-engine.
Little Bear was at the playground yesterday, when a younger munchkin fell over and hurt her knee. The parent swooped up their little girl as the tears started rolling. Little Bear became transfixed by the hurting baby, giving a look that resembled a struggle with constipation. His little awkward anxious grin stared at the baby until she calmed down. A few awkward steps towards the baby: “Is it ok Pappa?” “Yes, Little Bear, the baby was sad but she’s had a cuddle and is ok now”. He then runs off to throw himself recklessly down the nearest slide.
Ever get the feeling your kid sees you as a liability? It makes sense for teenagers. It’s what everyone expects from them. They’re suddenly more self-conscious than they’ve ever been in their little lives and feel the need to doggedly guard their new found reputations with their mates. They start getting their own tastes in music, films and dress-sense, and see these things as a way to tell the world who they are.
What you don’t expect as a first time parent of a smaller person is that there’s a similar leap for the little people between 1 and 2. Here are some things I’ve spotted that hail that new stage in a little troll’s navigation into social awkwardness and need to prop up their new found reputation.
Only parents understand their toddler's babbling
*Tap tap* *tap tap*. Someone’s patting my forehead. As my eyes open with a little morning light sneaking through the blinds into the bedroom, Little Bear is informing me that it’s time to get up. ‘God morgon Lila Björn!’ I can faintly make out his smile as he crawls over to grab hold of me in a heart-warming hug saying what sounds like ‘Pappa! Pappa!’. Raise my arm to hug him back and he does a skilful role under my arm, over my belly and sits up next to me pointing at the lamp: ‘lappa! lappa!’ (‘Lampa’ in Swedish). So me and the lamp have the same name… I’m not jealous of the fact that he clearly has more interest in switching on a lamp than hugging his daddy, but it’d be nice to not have to share my name with a bedside reading aid.
We were on holiday with family in Sweden last week, and Little Bear formed his first two-word sentence. Well, more of an instruction than a sentence: ‘go car!’,(‘gå bil!’ in Swedish) pointing in the direction of the Volvo in the driveway to the summer house. It’s clearly far from his first successful attempt at verbal communication. But it’s a big step in his learning to articulate his ridiculous desires and inconvenient opinions. What’s his third word in that sentence going to be when he can manage it? We’d like it to be please, but realistically it’s going to be ‘now’.
Nursery is a bit of a blind spot for parents. We spend every day following these tiny people around, monitoring their every nap, meal and nappy change, and getting enrolled into each tower building session and every repeat of the Hungry Caterpillar. Then, suddenly, we delegate this all to someone else. It’s like going into heart surgery. You’re suddenly trusting someone else to look after something that’s really quite important to you, and you’re not able to watch what’s going on when you’re doing it. I want to know what’s going on during this blind-spot.
When I say softer parent, I’m not thinking about round the waist. At the moment I’m leading that one. The question is: out of mum and dad, who is more willing to break when the baby’s siren starts up?
The stereotype is that mums give the cuddles, and dads dish out the discipline. Alternatively, dads leave all the strict stuff and coddling to the mums, and occasionally peer over their newspapers to tickle the little ones. I’m guessing that in most modern families, the picture is no longer so clear.
There’s an obsession with milestones. From the moment they’re out, we’re waiting to see our little ones focus, smile and laugh, then role, grab and crawl, cruise, clap, wave, dance, eat, build, sort, waddle and speak. Should parents be so keen? Why don't we hear about the downsides?
We might be keen on seeing the milestones because we’re building little people, so we like to see when the next brick is firmly in place; or we’re being competitive with other parents because our kid is obviously the best. Dads are generally allowed to be more open about this, although I’ve seen a few mums beam when their baby roles over and 4 months and the 5 month old next to them is struggling to lift its head.
It’s tougher than I thought it would be. With Little Bear starting nursery today, our time together on parental leave is just about to be over. I’ve dropped him off and of course I was there for hours trying to convince his watery eyes that it was ok to let go of Pappa, and that whilst this was the end of an era for both of us, we’ll still be together, and life will go on… No. Save about ten seconds of being clingy to Pappa, he discovered some balls to test in the corner and then promptly forgot about me. I hung around like a loser harbouring some unrequited love for about 10 minutes (9 minutes too long from his perspective), and then slowly crept out when he wasn’t looking.
There's a point, between 6 and 9 months, where all babies get a sudden urge to face danger. They look back at their little lives and think: 'Have I really seized the day? Sure, I was learning to focus and role over, but my life to this point has been wasted. I should now live every day like it's my last, and make that as likely as possible'.
How did this love of danger survive evolution? Hundreds of thousands of years ago, on the African savannah, crawling babies and toddlers that spotted a Lion clearly thought 'Oh, yay, let's play. Mummy and daddy always try and stop me so the orange fluff ball must be fun!' No baby you'll be eaten! But they don't care. And yet somehow we survived many more years.
Little Bear's been trying to give me hints about his preferences over the last few months. This involves the less subtle 'hints' (screeching and waving his arms when he wants to be picked up), and the more subtle ones, like his preference for eating natural yogurt, or his potential career choices. So thinking long term, after he's started eating solids properly, crawling and that stuff, what sort of job will he aim for?
He certainly has a musical streak to him. Not only does he love a good rendition of Wheels on the Bus, but he also loves joining in grown-up chats with a few tunes of his own. This has only gotten loader over the months. Granted, his singing talents will clearly need some nurturing by someone less tone-deaf than his dad, but he's got potential [warning: don't interrupt his singing or you may be the object of an aggressive screech, nurturing the diva side of his inner musician]
Then there's his brainy side. He always loves [to eat] a good book. Who knows where this might lead?...
Your first newborn is tough to look after. And not because of the sleepless nights, feeding troubles, and poo explosions. It's because nothing in life had ever prepared you for these things, and their constant wearing away at your normally well rested self. You're sub-consciously wondering when your weekend will come, or if the baby has an off-switch. When will you get to sleep! When will you shower! Then you clock that it's only been a week (felt like a month), and you've got the rest of the next 20 odd years to do... at least.
Fast-forward 8 months into parenting... It starts to feel like you can do this, and it's getting pretty fun. It's like you tasted your first pint of bitter (beer for non-Brits) 8 months ago and it was disgusting, but now it's turning out pretty refreshing and has become your drink of choice.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots