Except for the two and a half year old. The emotionally fragile two and a half year old...
The realities of two and a half year olds is that you are never away from them. Offers of babysitting tend to pale away in proportion to how stroppy he is being at that point in time. The ‘of course you can go out, we’ll look after him,’ quickly turns into, ‘well, maybe when he’s not quite so volatile. Maybe when he’s happier being apart from you.’ So a relaxed coffee with the husband turns into a tag-along blowing raspberries in the back of the car, into a high incidence of very sticky hands, into a silent prayer of today, let him be happy.
So far that day he had had tantrums over being sleepy, waking up, wanting to be carried, wanting to be put down, and a sausage roll. In Café Nero it was time for him to have a tantrum over his straw. The carton comes supplied with a proportionally short straw, but he put a long straw into his carton. (‘Did you get him that straw?’ I ask my husband. ‘I thought you did,’ he answers. Then we realise he’s just acquired a stray straw off the floor, and is sucking away at it.) But the straw is too long for the carton. He tries to shove it further through the hole. Apple juice sprays everywhere. He won’t accept the other straw. He won’t let us trim the long one down. He just wants it to be shorter – to spontaneously shorten itself because he’s furious with it.
Having a two year old is like having your own personal drunk or drug addict. They’re volatile, fall over easily, are irrational, take delight in strange food combinations, concentrate intensely on one unimportant detail, and can’t focus on what is important. Their speech is slurred, their co-ordination is clumsy, and they’re wildly unpredictable and liable to fall asleep at a moment’s notice. They often smell of pee. The only difference is that they don’t smell of alcohol – and that they’re like this all the time.
How is that that a sweet request of, ‘Peanut butter?’ can turn into a freshly made sandwich being torn into pieces and thrown on the floor because it wasn’t folded right, the peanut butter wasn’t spread right, he wasn’t allowed to make it himself because sometimes I just don’t have the patience to oversee these things, or because he changed his mind half way through and wanted honey instead? Actually, this article at slate.com answered a lot of those questions. It explains how hard it is for the toddler to understand why you’re suddenly saying no all the time, how they work to their strengths when negotiating the world (using their new-found motor skills in place of their inadequate language skills, for example), and how their frontal lobe is just not developed enough to enable them to plan and reason logically. All this boils down to the fact that when your two year old is screaming and throwing things (when your seven year old gets a black eye because he’s just had a toy hurled at his face), there’s a reason for that behaviour, and to a certain extent you just have to work through it. It doesn’t always help when he’s just upturned a potty full of urine onto the carpet, but knowing that your two year old is living in a bewildering, changing world is a very useful thing.
So, let’s get back to a world where you give the toddler a carton of apple juice and he decides the straw is too long. It’s almost inevitable that there will either be a spillage, or screaming. You can try to explain to him why he shouldn’t squeeze the carton like a marauding monster rampaging through a city, or why you can’t make the straw longer – but you shouldn’t expect to get anywhere, at least, not until a few more months have passed. Perhaps you will get looks of shock and disapproval from other people in the café (perhaps they never had children, or forgot what it was like.) But you shouldn’t feel that your child is the most terribly behaved child in the world. You shouldn’t feel that you oughtn’t to take him out in public, or that you should be able to stop him screaming. You should just grit your teeth and try to enjoy your coffee. After all, how many chances will you get, until your babysitters decide they can actually handle your bundle of joy again?