About a year ago, I went to a park in New York City and watched as a father tried to persuade his young son to hand over the apple he was holding so the boy would have both hands free to climb the monkey bars.
“Jake, the apple will be here when you get back,” the father reasoned.
“Nooooo,” Jake whined, as he inched toward the monkey bars, apple in hand.
“Jake, I’m not going to let you go on there until you give me the apple,” his father said.
As the father moved toward the boy, the child tightened his grip on the fruit.
“Noooooooo,” Jake said. “Leave me alone.” He took a step closer to the monkey bars.
I marveled at how at such a young age, the boy was already so possessive about an object that he was willing to forsake a pleasure in life in order to hold onto it.
In general, I’ve been surprised at how selfish children are. I guess I imagined with all the talk of how “We’re all born good,” with a clean slate, I thought children might be kind and giving because they hadn’t yet learned to be greedy and Machiavellian. No chance. They’re as cut-throat as diamond dealers and guard their belongings like a mother bird guards a nest. If you touch their stuff, they would stab you, if Playskool made sharper knives.
All summer long as we walked along the beach, all my son, Eddie, had to do was just look at another child’s shovel, even if it was just stuck in the sand and not being used, and the owner would come swooping in like a seagull grabbing a piece of bread out of the mouth of another bird. Eddie spent much of the summer looking bewildered, as children grabbed plastic pails and rakes out of his hands, not understanding what he had done to evoke such hostility.
Just yesterday, we went to a festival with Eddie’s friend, Gavin, and Eddie kept wanting to pull Gavin’s wagon. Gavin was having none of it. Finally, Gavin’s mother stepped in and forced her son to allow Eddie to pull the wagon for a bit. But like all acts of kindness that are mandated rather than elicited naturally, the second Gavin’s mother turned around, the boy pushed Eddie out of the way. Eddie cried and Gavin’s mother made the two boys hug and make up. Something similar had happened during the winter, only that time the object in question belonged to Eddie. Gavin wanted to push Eddie’s stroller, and he pushed Eddie out of the way in order to achieve that goal.
On the way home from the festival, I told Bruce I didn’t know if I wanted Eddie playing with Gavin anymore. I don’t want someone pushing my child. Ever. Why? Aside from never wanting to see him hurt or upset, I don’t want my child learning bad habits. Right now, he’s giving and kind and generous, and I didn’t want anyone tampering with that. At least I thought he was giving and kind and generous — until we took him to orientation day for daycare on Friday. He begins daycare this week and the school had all the parents and children come in for an hour to show us the classroom, meet the teachers, see their classmates and acquaint us with the routine. For the first 30 minutes, the parents sat on little stools and asked the teachers questions while the children quietly played with the toys within their reach.
“What kind of snacks do they get?” “How long is nap time?” “Do you tell us if someone has bitten our child?”
But as the public question period wrapped up and parents began to get into private discussions with one of the four teachers, the children began to stray farther and farther away from their parents and head toward the toys they’d been eyeing since they got there. Before long, Eddie had an orange ball in one hand and a green ball in the other, and he was walking around with them as if they were his until another child tried to take one of the balls away. Eddie moved his body in between the child and the ball and held on to it tightly. The other child was persistent and kept grabbing at it until he finally knocked it out of Eddie’s hand, and Eddie began to cry. One of the teachers came over with another ball and handed it to Eddie so that he once again had two balls.
A few minutes later, something similar happened with a bowl and spoon, where Eddie had two and another child wanted one of them, and Eddie wouldn’t budge.
“There are plenty of bowls for everyone,” the teacher said, and handed a bowl and spoon to the little girl who had been grabbing at one of Eddie’s.
Soon, Eddie grew bored with the bowl and dropped it to the floor. He then picked up a little red barn with a blue roof and handed it to my husband, Bruce, who was seated at a children’s table. Eddie then went and got a xylophone and brought it over to Bruce and left it with him on the table. He walked away and came back with an Elmo doll and a book. He was stockpiling.
I remembered last spring when I took Eddie to get the box of organic produce I pick up from a woman’s house every two weeks. She has a bunny in a cage in her yard, and I sometimes take Eddie out of the car to see the rabbit. I usually take a few carrots out of the box I’ve just picked up and hand them to Eddie. One is for him. The other is for the rabbit. Eddie will start to eat his own carrot and then stick the bunny’s carrot through the holes in the cage. But after a couple of seconds, he’ll move his own carrot to his other hand and start eating the rabbit’s carrot.
As we left the daycare center, the teachers gave us a memo that spelled out what the class was about and what each child would need: a lunch box, two drinks a change of clothes, some diapers and wipes and a family photo for the “my family” board. The first lines of the memo said, “Welcome to the toddler class. Our main focus at this age is to help your child with the development of social skills, such as sharing and cooperating.”
I hope my child isn’t left behind.