At the ripe age of a month shy of four, he's issued an edict banning celebrations of accomplishments major and minor. No gleeful clapping when he swims a few strokes. No acknowledgement when he finishes his peas or aims all the tinkle into the toilet.
At first I thought his ban on positive reinforcement was a weird quirk, a silly phase that would pass, that we'd forget within weeks. But it's had some staying power. R. and I are going on three months of our attempts at positive reinforcement being met with withering negative reinforcement, dished up with no small amount of insistence by our pint sized tyrant.
This Saturday I had an epiphany: I suspect the Grape is embarrassed to be the littlest/most sheltered member of our circle of friends. Of course he isn't technically the youngest person we know. We know many babies. But among the friends we see most often, the Grape is usually the smallest and youngest full fledged kid. (Babies don't seem to be a factor in kid world planning.)
And of the gang of "usual" kids, he's the most cautious, the one who fears the magic carpet ski lift, the one who hangs on the pool stairs because he doesn't trust that his (Coast Guard approved) floatie will allow him to join his pals in the deeper water, the one who needs to hold my hand during the Winnie the Pooh Movie when the Backson appears. He is not a see-you-later-Mom-I'm-off-to-the-races kind of child.
Children with older siblings get world wise a lot faster than their only child contemporaries. They have to keep up with the program, for starters, and I suspect many second and subsequent kids are held to higher self sufficiency standards than their parents' firstborns ever had to meet. They feed themselves, dress themselves and learn to soothe themselves at a more tender age than the oldest in the family.
One area where my highly unscientific playground observations indicate that many first borns excel: self entertainment. First born kids learn to play by themselves because there's no built in older sibling to follow around. A lot of very experienced moms I know (ones with children in high school or older) assure me there's truth the to stereotype that the oldest is the likeliest to devour books for fun.
These anecdotes reassure me, but they do nothing to help with the paradox at hand: the Grape is babyish, but he feels like a baby for being babyish. And I'm part of the problem, because I subscribe to the "he's only little for a short time, so let's keep him innocent as long as possible" school of thinking.
The Grape doesn't know about the existence of evil. I kept him out of the loop when bombs went off on the block that houses his preschool. He got nightmares for a week when my mom's pastor made some reference, during a children's Easter sermon, to "the bad guys" (i.e. Roman soldiers from 2000 years ago) who "took Jesus away" (i.e. arrested and executed the hero of the tale). All this unfolded with the help of a colorful souvenir story cube. We had to get rid of the thing because the Grape became obsessed with the bad guys. "Why are they bad?" he ask me, over and over. Scratch visiting church on high holidays off the list of safe family activities.
Evil, I've reasoned, is something we will confront when we must. Not electively.
This Saturday, a group of friends went to see a matinee showing of the cartoon movie Despicable Me 2. I agonized for two weeks about letting the Grape go, polled friends on whether they were letting their youngest kids see the movie, drove them nuts by asking again and again—because, I mean, it got a PG. I had to know, WHY did a cartoon get a PG? Are there realistic looking guns in it? Do the characters say the F-word? Does someone die onscreen, and if so, of what cause?
I scoured reviews and even considered hiring a sitter so I could pre-screen the film and make an informed decision.
Could I, in good conscience, send the Grape, who fears the Backson, a colorful figment of Owl's imagination, into a dark, crowded, cavernous theater for the first time in his short life to be
I decided, at the last minute, that I could. Or rather that R. could. I wasn't about to buy three movie tickets when I thought the chances were 50/50 that we'd make it through. So I stayed behind with a friend and her newborn.
In the end, the Grape was afraid of parts of the movie, but he held his father's hand and toughed it out and was so happy to be there with his friends. He emerged into the warm summer evening looking really proud of himself, and I felt a twinge of regret for missing his first movie.
"Don't say good job," was all he had to say to me before he ran off to play with his friends. And that was the moment I got it. He's trying to say, "Don't act so surprised and proud, Mamma, when I do things everyone else can already do."