Grace springs through the front door.
“I have Princess Shoes!!!”
We look down. Bright silver, covered with sequins. Those are some fancy shoes, all right. Wooo-eee. The other children make all appropriate noises of wonderment. Grace prances about, delighted.
Emma and I are less so. We had a long-ish walk planned for the tots. Emma checked Grace’s bag for the sports sandals that her sensible parents usually send along on the days Grace demands frivolous footwear. None. Not a sensible shoe in sight. Hm.
“They are my Princess Shoes!” Grace declares again, so very proud. We agree that yes, those sure do look like princess shoes! And wow, are they pretty! And sparkly!!
“The problem is,” I say, easing her off her peak as gently as possible, “that princess shoes are not always very comfortable to walk in, not for a long walk.”
We consider her feet.
“I can walk!!!” Grace, supremely confident. Grace, of course, has no idea. In her four-year-old mind, her Princess Shoes make her happy, so her shoes will be fine, just FINE! Mind over matter!
The question is, will those shoes still be making her happy after 3 km? Pfft. Showing appalling lack of faith, I, unlike Grace, am quite confident those shoes will be contributing to acute misery within a kilometre and a half. I note to Emma that we can always take them off and let her go barefoot if they start creating problems. Grace resists this notion.
“No, I can wear these! They are my Princess Shoes!!” Her lip starts to quiver.
Emma kneels down in front of Grace. “They sure are. That’s sort of the problem. Princess Shoes don’t act like real shoes, you know. Remember Cinderella? As soon as she started running away from the ball, what happened?”
Grace pauses, then her eyes widen.
“One falled off!”
“Exactly! Princess Shoes are like that. They’re very good at looking pretty, but not so good at acting like real shoes. So. As long as your Princess Shoes act like real shoes, you can wear them. But if they start acting like Princess Shoes, we’ll just put them in your bag and you can go barefoot.”
Emma? Is a genius.
And Grace? Walked home barefoot.
Coming! Really! (Even though today it’s -11C with a windchill of -24. Blurgh.) But I have hard evidence! Look!
See the difference? Two-metre snowbanks of clean, puffy snow, vs less than one metre of gritty snowbanks … and clear sidewalks!!
It’s coming, it’s coming!
In the interests of full disclosure, though
two weeks ago.
We’re getting there!
She sits on the end of a bench at the park, watching the children in her care. Her face is set in a frown, as it generally is. There is a quote, attributed variously to Coco Chanel, George Orwell and Mark Twain, which goes “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. But at fifty, you have the face you deserve.” Very true.
I’m in my fifties. I hope — I believe — my face shows years of warmth, intelligence, and love. I don’t have a lot of lines and wrinkles yet, and those I have are light, not deep. (Thank you, mum, for those good genes!) There are frown lines there, sure. No one gets to be fifty without times of unhappiness and struggle, but there are others, too. I truly love the laugh lines at the corners of my eyes, and I hope they just get deeper and deeper as the years go by. You can read a person’s attitudes in their face in their sixties and up. I hope, when I get there, that mine shows peace, happiness, warmth, and kindness.
I look at my same-age friends, and see the same sorts of stories on their faces: kindness, warmth, intelligence, humour.
The wrinkles on this woman’s face tell the tale of years and years of negativity. Habitual frowning. Sneers. Contempt.
How she continues to get clients is a mystery to me. Surely one look at that scowl-draped face, at the permanently etched frown lines scoured into her skin, would send any loving parent looking elsewhere? I’ve often wondered: “Who’d leave their child with a face like that?”
She doesn’t often join in conversation, but when she does, it is one long litany of complaints. Complaints about the children in her care. Complaints about their parents. Complaints about life in general. Sometimes, for variety, she moves from complaints to sneering and sarcasm.
She is abrupt, sometimes harsh, with the children in her care. She tosses out orders — part of the job — but never pulls a child in for a snuggle. Although we all encourage our children to run around and play at the park, at points over the morning, we’ll all have a child in our laps, a child who has run over for a quick cuddle before racing off again. There may be a child who’s a little under the weather that day, and needs a warm, reassuring lap for the duration of our visit. That’s okay.
Not this woman. Her small charges never come over for gratuitous cuddling.
So. Not my favourite person. I avoid chronically negative people, and goodness, she exudes negativity.
But today? Today she’s had a personality transplant. She’s not sitting on the bench, scowling and immoveable. She’s getting up! And walking around! And she’s … I’ve never seen this before! She’s smiling!
(Of course, she’s one of those people whose smile turns down at the corners. Of course she is. But it’s a smile.)
She’s smiling, and calling out words of encouragement to her kids. Friendly, conversational words instead of barked orders. Wow.
And she’s chatting with people. With the other caregivers, with the parents. Chatting, and, moreover, listening ,instead of dousing you with a deluge of complaints and sneering.
It’s startling, it really is. I’ve seen this woman in the park for a good ten years, and I’ve never seen her so friendly, animated, engaged.
She’s looking for kids, is what. Over the conversation, it emerges that her enrollment is down. She needs to fill some spaces, asap. Now, it’s a wonder to me that this isn’t her chronic situation. That this woman is able to fill spaces, and keep them filled, has always puzzled me.
But for whatever reason, two of her clients have decamped with little warning, a third will be graduating shortly, and she’ll be down to two children. The wolf is at her door, she feels its hot breath on her heels, and so …
And so she’s out there. Networking. Smiling. Being friendly to the other caregivers, being warm with her children.
Does this warm her to me? Do I feel the shields of my frosty reserve melting away in the sunshine of this new, friendly face?
Not so much. Instead, I think to myself: So this means that you know. You know you’re unfriendly. You know it doesn’t look best when you sit, arms folded, scowling on a bench. You know you should be smiling, engaging, warm, supportive.
You know all that, and you can do it. You know how. Even if it’s just an act, even if it’s entirely faked, you know how to go through the motions. (You could try to fake it till you make it. Put on a happy face, and it will improve your mood a bit, may even become how you truly feel. Do it habitually, and it becomes natural. Really.)
You know, and you can … but unless you must do it, unless you’re forced, you don’t. Instead, you choose to be hard, frowning, cold, and negative. All.The.Time.
Nope. Still don’t like this woman. And I hope those spaces stay unfilled.
Four toddlers and a baby. The baby is snoozing in the stroller, the four toddlers walking. The mall was pretty quiet, so I let the big kids let go of the stroller, with instructions to walk behind and stay close. Whenever they toodle along behind me, I am tempted to quack. Momma duck and the ducklings trailing in my wake.
It works pretty well, but for Grace the Vague, who tends to wander to the side, her gaze caught by passing dust motes, or lag far, far, faaaaar behind, her footsteps slowed by a passing thought. Or something. She ended up hanging on to the stroller again. She wasn’t offended. There are dust motes close to the stroller, too.
We are going to the bank, then to Grand and Toy for a binder and more of my favourite pens. Two items. Two items, and an ENTIRE MORNING outing. Really. We walk to the mall (50 minutes). We go to the bank (5). We coo over the adorable kittens in the window of the pet store right beside the bank (15 minutes). We meander down the length of the mall to Grand and Toy (5 minutes).
Before entry to the store, I gather the children around the stroller to review the Rules for Stores. First I must catch their attention, all at the same time. Not an easy feat.
“Guys, look at me. Look here.” I point to my eyes. “I want to see all your eyes. Jazz? Daniel? Eyes, please. Grace. Grace, my eyes. Look at my eyes. Okay. So we’re going into a store. When we go in, you must hang on to the stroller.”
We arrange them so that they’re each hanging on to their hanging-on spot. Then I continue.
“Okay. Look at me again. Eyes. Eyes, guys.” Three sets of eyes meet mine. One set is gazing still communing with dust motes. “Grace?” I cup my hand under her chin. “Look at my eyes, lovie. Everybody looking at me? Good. There are lots of interesting things in the store. Will you touch any of them?”
“Nooooo.” They all chime in unison, a long, serious, lowing. A couple of passers-by grin.
“That’s right. Nooo touching. But what can you do?”
“We can YOOK!” Daniel is very pleased to know the right answer.
“That’s right. Good job, Daniel! You can look, but you caaaan’t touch.”
Having established the Rules for Engagement with Stores, we proceed. It takes a few seconds to locate my pens.
“May I hold the pens for you, Mary?” Jazz asks. This is something they do. It’s a treat for them, but serves a secondary purpose. Hands that are holding things for me are less able to touch stuff on shelves.
“Sure, sweetie. Here you go. Thank you!”
And then to the rear of the store, where, after some discussion, we decide to get a pretty pink folder with pockets rather than a binder.
“May I, may I, may I hold that, Mary?”
“Sure, Grace. Here you go. And that’s it, guys. We can go home, now.” The aisle is narrow, and I’ve instructed the children to stand together in one spot so I can manoeuvre the stroller around the corner. When I turn to call them to me, Poppy’s head hangs low, her shoulders slump, her lower lip out in the absolutely perfect Gerber-baby pout. She is the very picture of dejection, and it’s freakin’ adorable.
“Poppy! What’s wrong, little missy?”
“We are all done shopping!”
“Yes, we are. Now we can go home and have lunch.” (Lunch is usually a big draw for Poppy.)
“We are all done shopping, and I didn’t get to CARRY ANYTHIIIIING!”
Poppy’s lip quivers. Perfect round tears tremble on her curly lashes. Her eyes meet mine, glimmering with the unshed tears which will soon trickle prettily down her downy pink cheeks.
Oh, honestly. Why is it that some people (Poppy, Daniel) can look unbelievably adorable, scoop-me-up-and-comfort-me, when they cry, when others of us (Grace, Jazz, me) turn into blotchy, snotty, red-nosed, red-rimmed disgusting messes of revolting misery? Why wasn’t I blessed with the Cute Cryer gene? The rest of us, we are revolting cry-ers. It’s not that our sadness is any less real. It’s just blotchy and … slimier. Instead of yearning to scoop us up and cuddle us, people take one look us, throw us a thick towel, and hope we keep our distance. NOT FAIR.
However, even the cute cryers feel true misery, and Poppy is feeling it now. If the shopping is all done, she won’t get to Hold Something for Mary. She won’t get to carry it through the store. Most heart-breaking, she won’t get to put it on the counter for the cashier.
Because putting things on the counter, that is THE BEST THING EVER!!! Poppy looks at me, quivering in utterly adorable misery. Daniel gazes at me hopefully, his eyes threatening a similar glimmer.
Which is why, three minutes later, I slipped FOUR purchases into my bag: pens, a pretty pink plastic folder, and two rolls of scotch tape. Yes, I’m perfectly capable of saying no. I can tell a sorrowful two-year-old that she can carry something next time. (I can do this and know that she will NOT throw a screaming, flailing tantrum in response.) I can do any number of things that don’t involve buying more stuff … but, meh. This time, I wanted to.
Christmas is coming. We’re going to need tape.
Off we go to the park. There are several parks we can walk to, spoiled city kids that we are. There is one we go to several times a week through the summer, and because we seit so often, a pattern has emerged.
Of course it has.
Toddlers love patterns.
Toddlers need patterns.
Patterns around bedtimes and meals are called “Consistency”, and parents should manipulatively maintain, cannily create, and certainly MILK those patterns for all their behaviour-shaping potential.
Patterns around favourite activities are called, variously, “cute”, “methodical”, “a pain in the arse”, or “OhmyGOD, my kid is so damned OCD!!!”, depending on the time, need for speed, agenda, and patience level of the parent in question.
You all know what I mean. Something like this:
“I KNOW you like me to make all the noises of all the animal on this page in this book — this book which we must read every morning after breakfast — but you had TWO ginormous poops today, the second requiring a mini-bath, we’re way behind schedule and have to be at daycare in ten minutes and THERE IS NO TIME!” [Cue screaming meltdown, so you can bring tear-sodden tot to daycare and feel like a total parental loser.]
Not so fun, that one.
I use the patterns that work for me, ignore the ones that don’t, eliminate the ones that are simply bad behaviour (ignoring often eliminates them, come to that), and bask in the ones that amuse me.
Today’s post is about the basking kind.
So, we’ve been at the park. Going to the park, there are not many rituals, because we are focussed on getting to the park. Coming home, though? I have learned that, done right, coming home requires a solid half-hour.
Now, I did have to learn this. At first, I fought it. I’d allow 15 minutes for the walk home (on my own, as an adult, it takes a little less than ten), and then they zigged and zagged and raced off down tangents from that agenda. I pulled them back, and redirected, called them over, called them back, hurried them up … and got pretty damned exasperated, truth be known. Because when we got home, we still had to eat, change diapers, tidy up and read stories before they could start their naps. At Mary’s house, naps are sacrosanct. We are very, VERY consistent about naps.
So. I had it all mapped out in my head. Park, walk home, lunch, pre-nap activities, nap. This was the Agenda, the goal was (and is!) NAP ON TIME, and I did not want to be distracted, deterred, held up. AT ALL.
However. The point is Naptime to start On Time. It took me a week or two of impatient prodding before I realized (duh) the trip there and back is part of the outing. It’s not simply transit time. With that wee mental shift, we could leave the park half an hour sooner, because I belatedly noticed what the toddlers knew all along: leaving early doesn’t cut down on playtime, it just shifts the venue. Duh, again.
Here is how our walk home goes, now.
We leave the playground. There is a row of trees on the path that leads from the playground to join with the path along the river. This row of trees starts maybe four metres from the park. Poppy, Grace, Daniel and Jazz must run to a tree, cup their hands around the sides of their faces, and press their noses into the bark. They stand there, tense and giggling, waiting for me to call out, “WHEEEEERE’s JAZZ?? WHEEEERE’S POPPY? WHEEEEERE’S GRACE??? WHEEEERE’s DANIEL???” And then they POP! their faces back off the tree, fling their hands out wide and giggle at me as I say, in TOTAL SURPRISED DELIGHT, “THERE you are!!!”
We have to do this on Every.Single.Tree. There are four of them. I have to call it for each child, separately, for each tree. Traversing this path to the river can take, oh, five to eight minutes. (It’s a one-minute walk for an adult; two with a walking toddler.)
But it is SO!MUCH!FUN!!!! (Yes, some days I do this on auto-pilot, my mind on other things, because (I know you will find this hard to believe) I do not find this as RIVETTING and full of UNIMAGINABLE DELIGHT as the toddlers. But I do it because there is great reward in their joy-filled faces. Even when I’m a teensy bit bored.)
We get to the junction of the two paths. There is a sign here (“Dogs must be leashed past this point on pain of $150 fine”, I think). There is a medium-sized bowl-shaped depression beside the sign. We must race into the bowl, lie down, and yell out about how “I’m swimming! Mary, I’m swimming inna pool!” Another 2 – 5 minutes spent here.
And then we are at the path along the river. There are benches at intervals on this path. And here is what happens next.
“Mary, may we run ahead?”
“Yes, you may. You may run to the next bench, and then wait for me.”
Because that is what The Script requires. Off they go, charging ahead to the bench. Then they must (the MUST, I tell you! It is TRADITION!) climb up on the bench, and then sit on it so that they face backward. They are in a train. Every bench is a train, and they must needs ride ALL THE TRAINS!
They scramble up on the benches, the arrange themselves, they sit with their feet swinging as I approach. And then they swarm down, and ask again,
“Mary, may we run ahead?”
And so on, until …
We reach the CLIMBING TREE. Scrambling around on the Climbing Tree takes, oh, a good ten minutes, often more. I watch the children, I text friends (yes! I am THAT caregiver! the one who SHAMELESSLY IGNORES the children in her care), I watch the geese on the river, I plan the afternoon’s craft. And they scramble up and down the gentle slop of the giant trunk, sit on one stump, deke around behind, pop up, ride the bus. See, while the benches are trains, this tree? Is a bus. A school bus.
You know? I do not need to give you details about ALL the homeward-bound activities. But be assured: there are rocks to inspect for pee and then jump on, there are fields to fall in, there are saplings to race around, there is one particular spot where we MUST all lie down like cordwood, so that when Mary approaches, she MUST call out “Wakey-wakey, rise and shine!!”
I could fight this. I could insist that we walk in focussed attention to get home promptly and efficiently. I did do that, for a week or two. We got home sooner, sure, but I was motivated by impatience and thus mildly exasperated the whole time.
Now, though? Once I decided to allow them their patterns? Okay, so I do sometimes feel a fleeting boredom, but mostly I revel in the JOY.
Walking home from the park … brings not just happiness, but JOY to these children.
Toddlers are wonderful for joy. (Yes, they’re wonderful for rage, too, unfiltered little primitives that they are. It’s the flip side of the same coin.) But when they do joy, they’re wonderful.
It’s a long, long, sloping sidewalk that challenges us as we make our way over the bridge on our way home from a lovely long outing on this beautiful fall day. A sidewalk with clear boundaries: on one side, the decorative concrete wall preventing us from plunging into the water below, and on the other side a 20-cm drop to busy street beside us. (As in, the sidewalk is raised, not broken.)
I am pushing a single stroller with New Baby Girl — now with the new, improved blog name of Rosie! — while the other three hold on: Grace and Poppy hold on to the stroller itself and Jazz holds on to Grace’s hand.
(All this finely calculated: Poppy is the second-youngest, and so must hold on. Grace is a terrible dawdler and would end up a km behind in about three minutes. It’s astonishing how far back she gets. Oh, the irony: dawdling is the one thing Grace does quickly. Jazz does not normally have to hold on at all, as she keeps up and stays close, but when on a busy street or a crowded sidewalk, she’s required to.)
All this careful arrangement does mean that, small as we are, we string out across the entire width of the sidewalk.
Now, one thing that truly annoys me is oblivious sidewalk-hoggers. These are generally groups of children and teens, though adults do it on occasion too. Once a child is 9 or so, I start to expect some sidewalk awareness. Three six-year-olds are strung across the sidewalk, meaning that me, walking on my own, am going to have to slide sideways around them or walk on the street? I cheerfully call out “beep, beep, guys!” Three fifteen-year-olds do it? I square my shoulders and refuse to budge an inch. This usually means that the one closest to me — who fully expects this mild-looking middle-aged lady to MAKE ROOM for his/her stupendousness, the only real, significant person in the universe, after all — this usually means that the one on my end careens off my shoulder. Only, I was expecting it, see, so I am unfussed, whereas little Lady (or Master) Self-Absorbed often actually staggers a pace.
“Oh, gracious!” I’ll say, as if I hadn’t been expecting it at all. “Sorry!” Which is a bald-faced lie. I’m not. At all. I hope that this has taught them a lesson, if not in manners and consideration, at least in self-preservation, which will result in the same behaviour: pay attention to oncoming traffic, and make room.
So, since this inconsiderate behaviour annoys me so very much, I’m not about to tolerate it in my kids. Yes, they’re only toddlers and cannot reasonably be expected to figure this out themselves. Not the point! Pro-social behaviour training starts NOW!
So as we climb this long, long sloped sidewalk, I keep an eye out for oncoming pedestrians, in both directions. When someone comes up from behind, I simply stop and gently pull the child-obstacle out of the way. (We are slow-moving traffic, after all, and it’s a long section of sidewalk where no one could feasibly pass by stepping into what is usually a busy street.) When someone is coming from in front, however, the training begins.
“Jazz, honey. There’s a lady coming. See her? When she gets close, you’re going to have to squish into Grace a bit, so she can get by.” This said, you note, when said woman is well ahead. All this talking takes some time, and toddlers? They do not have lightning-quick reflexes.
As the woman gets closer, I remind Jazz. “Okay, Jazz, time to move over. Come this way a bit.”
And the woman, she smiles down at the four little faces, says, “Oh, that’s okay! They’re fine! Don’t worry!”
People do that. They think they’re being nice. They are being nice, but I sigh a little sigh each time it happens. ‘I don’t have to move because I’m little and cute’ is not the lesson I want these children learning. I usually just smile back, but today Jazz notices.
“Why did her say ‘don’t worry’?”
And I pause to consider. Why did she say that? It’s not too hard to figure: She’s probably seeing a woman with a lot on her plate, and is trying not to add more to it. She’s being considerate, is what she’s doing. Besides, there’s another explanation which is likely also part of it, that these children are too little to be aware of traffic, too young to be held culpable for their oblivion. Which is true, but…
But not forever! They get a free pass for now, but when do we expect these things to magically kick in, if we don’t actively teach them? Judging by the number of adolescent shoulders I knock into in a month, this is not something that just happens.
So I have to think of an explanation that will, well, explain what she just said, but without undermining my long-term agenda.
“You know what? I think she might have said that because she thinks you’re too little for good manners.” And you know what? Sometimes that is what it is. The follow-up comments tend to give it away. “Plenty of time for that!” or “Oh, it’s okay. They’re just little!” Well-meant, but unhelpful. And false.
I had chosen my words carefully, and I hit the mark. Jazz rears back in indignation. (Jazz is a champion indignation-rearer.)
“I am not too little! I am a big girl!”
“Yes, you are, and you have good manners. You have good manners, and you are learning more every day.”
“I have my good manners! I can say ‘please’!”
Grace is catching the drift now. “I can say ‘please’, too!”
“Yes, you can. You say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’. All those good manner words. You’re learning to say “would you, please’ when you ask for help, and today? Today, what are we practicing?”
Blink. Blink. Blink. Mary and the trick questions. Geez. A hint is required.
“Just now, when that lady came, what did you do, Jazz?”
Oh, now that she knows. “I squished into Grace!”
Grace echoes: “She squished into me!”
“Yes. Why did you do that?”
A few more exchanges, in which it is determined — because this is in no way obvious to a toddler — that had Jazz not ceded a sliver of sidewalk the woman would have had to leap either into oncoming traffic or the canal. On or the other. But she would not have been able to walk on the sidewalk.
This is subtle, people, subtle. For toddlers (and, it seems, for many teens).
And so, when the next woman approaches, and we are in this process again, I call out to her: “We’re just learning our Sidewalk Manners!”
To which Jazz adds, “Because I am a BIG GIRL!”
And we are all very proud.
It was Jazz who thought of this. A small stick, a long stretch of metal fencing. Ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-ping-TINNNNGGGG! (The large support uprights make a different, more resonant sound.)
That’s Poppy ahead, in the hat, Jazz second. All the children but NBG were doing this, but as soon as they saw the camera, they would not stop looking at it! Big cheesy — and identifying — grins all round. Little hams.
As I watched them trundle along the ping-ping-ping-ping fence, I realized I was watching an absolutely quintessential kid thing. What child has not done this when presented with a fence? A metal fence gives you a lovely ping-TING!, but a wooden slatted fence produces a nice clickety-click percussive effect, too. (Mary is very auditory. She notices this stuff.)
Little kids, short sticks, a long fence to make music. Some days my job provides me with little moments of absolute contentment. This was one. THIS is exactly what should be happening. Right here, right now. I hope your day, today, gives you one moment like this. When you see it, pause, and savour. You might even take a picture!
I live near a river, one of two that run through or by Ottawa. (There is also a canal and a small lake. We don’t lack for pretty water in this city.) You can’t live that close to such natural beauty and not take daily advantage. I have to be pretty ill to not wander down to the river at least once in a day.
The river is beautiful, of course. In the summer, the sun dances diamonds on the surface. The reeds and trees frame it in lush shades of green. Birdsong, chirrups, cheeps, twitters and the croak of frogs. It’s also the home of all manner of wildlife. We’ve seen frogs and herons. (When the heron’s been effective, we’ve seen ex-frogs. Nature, red in tooth and claw.) Red-winged blackbirds, musk rats, carp, snapping turtles, sparrows, loons, mallards and little merganser ducks, white swans and black Australian swans, the occasional beaver, raccoons, a fox…
And, today, Canada Geese. Several families of them. Adults and goslings. Wild enough to be wary, tame enough to approach for the possibility of treats tossed their way.
The children are as drawn to the geese as the geese are drawn to them.
And then, starting with Poppy (in the middle), the children respond to this visitation of nature
with a … dance?
Toddlers are weird little critters.
I think the absolute best thing about living in a place that has seasons is the delight that comes with the changes. Spring is particularly wonderful, leaving the constraints of winter behind and moving into sunshine, colours, and warmth.