For a long time, Mark was a slightly more vocal boy version of Maggie Simpson, a kid with a penchant for sucking on a pacifier, keenly aware of her surroundings yet clingy and and needy. In other words, Mark was a toddler, that weird transitional stage between “baby” and “kid”—a word that has no exact equivalent in French.
Toddlers are the sandbox’s misfits. They are no longer babies, easily amused and comforted with a smile or by rocking, yet they are not old enough to express their feelings well and play independently. Baby clothing no longer fits yet kid clothing seems huge. You’re not sure whether they meant to hit you and you should get mad or whether it was just innocent behaviour. You don’t know whether the movie is too scary, whether they understand what you say, whether they are truly not hungry or just testing limits once again, whether they are really upset or just throwing a tantrum.
Toddlers are cute in picture but they are frustrating and I’m sure they are frustrated with life too considering all the not-so-fun milestones to reach—potty training, eating solid foods alone, getting dressed, mastering simple sentences, separating from parents during the day… In retrospective, Mark reached most of them fairly easily but it took time, patience—and did I mention the tantrums? He was often scared, often frustrated, and so were we because it’s hard to explain a kid you wash your hands because you have to, period. Mark’s specialty was whining and most of the time, I just threw my hands up in frustration: “Mark, I don’t even KNOW what you are upset about!” It wasn’t fun. Mark was testing the limits and I had to be the bad cop all the time.
And then, suddenly, at the beginning of the trip, Mark decided he didn’t want to be a baby anymore. His words, not mine. He started to check how tall he was, and after I gave him a mini-lesson on nutrition, he now wants to know after every meal if he is “really taller.” “I had chips, I’m really taller. And candies. Oh no… candies don’t make taller. Bread and yogurt make really taller.” Yes, I drew the line at claiming that junk food makes “really taller”. “You eat chocolate because it tastes good. That’s a good enough reason,” I told him.
So I strategically leveraged this new attitude, encouraging “big boy” behaviour and of course, rewarding it. “Oh, you’re such a big boy, you can do that by yourself…” “Well, since you’re a big boy, you can help me.” “Yes, you can go play because I trust you.” Amazingly, it worked. Mark was so proud to be given freedom and responsabilities (even if I stayed two steps behind…) that he actually behaved, and Feng and I started to relax too.
Maybe because he was with us 24/7, he also started to speak very well. Now he can carry a conversation… and he actually makes sense! I started to ask him questions and listen to him carefully. I think he likes being the center of attention and I’m genuinely interested in finding out what goes on in his mind. Now I can find out why he is scared, why he is happy, why he likes this or that (FYI, he likes visiting churches “because I NEED it”, so I’m guessing he is either possessed, either a saint—jury is out on that one). Oh, it’s not that simple, it takes time and some guesswork but for the first time, I can glimpse into his logic. For instance, Mark has an evil personality: Dragon Warrior, from his beloved Kung Fu Panda movie. If he tells me he is Dragon Warrior, it means he is about to be silly. And then when he is done, he comes back and announces that he is not Dragon Warrior but Mark. Phew. Don’t worry, I’m starting to save money for a few sessions at a shrink just in case he doesn’t outgrow that phase.
Most importantly, along with the “why?” stage, he develops solid critical thinking skills. For instance, in Santiago, he wanted to play in a fountain. Obviously, I didn’t think it was a great idea even though local kids seemed to use it as a splash pad/swimming pool.
“The little girl is going,” Mark observed, bitter. “I want to do the same!”
“Yes, but I said no. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Sometime, you see other people doing something silly. You don’t have to join.”
“… Okay, imagine your friends are playing and one of them gets hurt. Do you want to get hurt to be like them?”
“NO! That’s silly!”
“There you go. Everybody is different. You don’t have to do the same thing as your friends.”
He actually understood and every time we walked past the fountain, he had to explain me that he wasn’t going to go even though other kids were bathing in it.
Now he is trying so hard to be responsible and well behaved that I’m the one to suggest that rules can be bent. I mean, I offered him chocolate this afternoon and he said “no, thank you”! And he claimed he loved lettuce because I was having a salad. Come on!
"Charlie hit me."
"Oh no! What did you say?"
— Juliette Giannesini (@Xiaozhuli) March 12, 2016
When he started daycare again after we came back, the roles were reversed. He knew he was going to school, we didn’t take him by surprise. That morning, he was unusually quiet. We drove to the daycare, Feng parked and I walked with Mark to his classroom. He was cluntching to his lunch box and water bottle, his pants slightly too small. He didn’t say a word. I took his jacket off, we greeted everyone and he stood there, holding my hand. “Mommy won’t come back…” he muttered. I guaranteed him I would, told him he was going to have fun, the usual. And then suddenly, seeing him standing in the hallway, stoic, mouth close, trying so hard not to cry (and doing a damn good job on holding his tears)… I couldn’t take it. I burst into tears and I had to run away. Mark who screams and cries? I can take it, nothing new here, unless he is hurt it doesn’t bother me. But Mark trying not to cry? Unbearably sad, sorry.
Mark can still be whiny if he is tired and we have frustrating moments but overall, we communicate better and I love teaching him life skills. It’s rewarding. I can see how much he grew and how much he changed. I see it in the way he moves, the way he speaks and the way he reacts.
But for my mum, I doubt any of you finds Mark’s progress riveting, which is perfectly understandable. But with this article I’m sending a message of hope to other parents: if your kid is stuck in the baby or toddler phase, don’t worry, they actually do grow up… and become fascinating little human beings!