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’.
When out with Little Bear, most of the time, he’s in the driving seat. If he knows what something’s called, he can normally get it. His most used words are ‘that-way’ (in Swedish, ‘ditåt’), usually said with a little finger pointing, and ‘no’. A few weeks back whilst walking in the park, a friend of ours told me that we’ll need to get on top of that as he thinks he’s ruling the roost. She calls to her little boy who starts toddling back obediently. I do the same with Little Bear who’s trying to find some stones in the mud. He looks at me with brow furrowed and hand raised, tilts his head to the side and gently says ‘no’, then turns and carries on the play… We might be another few minutes.
When we get back home, his Mamma’s sitting on her armchair. He strolls over, and after a short hug, he reaches behind her and starts tapping her bum ‘go, go’. My wife stands up and he climbs into his newly acquired armchair with a grin on his face.
The English part of me, along with most English readers, is probably a little shocked by all this compliance from parents (however adorable it is). Are we being pushovers to a toddler? Are we spoiling him? Will he grow into a sociopath because of it? And there are probably at least a dozen pop parenting books that will claim that I'm doing it all wrong.
I get other parents have their own way that might be necessary for their kids, but so far never really raising our voices with Little Bear hasn’t seemed to cost us much. True, he still wastes a large portion of his food by testing how it sticks to the wall of how well it mixes if he pours water on it. I have to cope with my wallet and phone being hidden under bookshelves and in toy boxes on a daily basis, and his excited kisses still manifest themselves as little bite marks on my arm.
But my inner-Swede tells me that this is just him being a toddler, and really it’s just adorable, even after the hundredth time it happens. My skin is thick enough (figuratively and literally) to cope with his cheeky antics.
Looking at videos of his Mamma growing up in Stockholm, it’s like watching him, but in a strange world where people could wear florescent green tracksuits with white high-heals, or could listen to the cheesiest form of electro-pop and take it seriously. 18 month old Little Bear, and baby Mamma Bear look similar, and they act similar. She’s calling on the shots about where they walk, being cheeky and putting her Pappa’s money through the floorboards. Both of her parents just smiling and taking it easy. It’s the Swedish way.
And my wife is not spoiled, she’s not unpleasant, and she’s not still running around hiding people’s car-keys and trying to bite them. She’s actually one of the nicest people I’ve ever come across. But she still has the same confidence and will-power that she did when she was a toddler. She’s now just using it to do more useful things.
We’re still firm with Little Bear when something needs to be done, but is it a bad lesson for a toddler to learn that they can make their own choices in life so long as it’s safe? The idea of shouting at a toddler, or thinking a toddler can be bad, spoiled or manipulative appear to me to be pretty taboo in Swedish culture, whereas they’re staples of the way I was brought up and the way we use to think of kids in the UK. I can see it’s changing a lot now here in London, but it’s still a way of thinking that I’m trying to get out of.
Parents say ‘no’ to children about a hundred times a day. So naturally, the little parrots, with their own wants, are going to try and use it too. But I remember feeling that if my friends or I used ‘no’ to our parents, there’d be trouble. Possibly because the word sounds funnier in Swedish (‘Nej’ or ‘no-aye’ according to Little Bear), but Swedish parents seem quite relaxed about their kids disagreeing with them. I'm not saying that this explains why Swedes are happier than Brits on average, nor that it's why Swedes are amongst the emotionally balanced and longest living people in the world. But it seems to be having a good effect on Little Bear at least.
The day he started attacking a poor dog and entered the whacking other toddlers phase, we showed him how you should pat things gently. He now gently strokes every dog he can get his hands on, and has long been giving the same careful treatment to babies and even the hoover. The other day I took him into a shower after a swim. The water was too cold for him. He didn’t shout, he didn’t get into a tantrum (although these do happen if his supply of milk is not limitless), he raised his hand, furrowed his eye-brow, tilted his head and look me straight in the eye and in a serious but calm voice: ‘No, Pappa’. If that’s how he grows up to deal with negative feelings, I’m going to feel pretty happy.
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots