Thursday, July 17, 2014

Unspilled milk

Last night, the little guy got himself some milk. The mere thought of such a quotidian act barely seems to clear the bar for any kind of remark, unless said remarking is going to go on at great length. (Which, I mean, of course it is.)

On the nights when my wife works and I feed the kids dinner, what often happens is that I plop the bino in the highchair and lock in the tray, and I cajole his big sister and brother to come and sit at the table, and I start doling out the food. The bigger kids get their dinner all at once, while the bino has to have it rationed, or else he finds the full portions too overwhelming and starts picking them up and throwing them at the dogs. (To be fair, the dogs don’t mind this at all, but it strikes me and my wife as excessive.) Sometimes the bigger kids want seconds, and sometimes they want to take their courtesy bites of what was prepared and then switch to yogurt, so there’s a fair amount of running back and forth between the stove/counters and the dining table. Which means I don’t usually bother sitting down, especially since there’s no other adult to have a conversation with or otherwise model proper table manners. I stand at the island (or peninsula, as we call it, since it’s anchored to one wall) and eat my own dinner upright, watching the kids and dishing up food or providing replacement utensils as needed. Or fetching drinks.

So in and of itself, the little guy getting up and getting his own drink instead of asking me for it was at least a little bit noteworthy. But also consider all of the steps involved, as if you had to program a robot to perform the same task:

- open the fridge - get out the gallon jug of milk without dropping it - set the milk on the counter beside the fridge, which is at about eye-level for a five-year-old - get a cup and set it on the counter as well - open the milk and set aside the cap - pour milk into the cup without spilling - return the milk jug to the counter - twist the milk cap closed, without jostling the cup of milk - return the milk jug to the fridge - return to the table with the cup of milk

I can enumerate all of these steps not because (or not only because) my day job is computer programming and I tend to think that way by default, but because that is often the way my wife and I have to approach getting the little guy to do just about anything. He is easily distracted and a bit on the scattered side, and we have learned through long, hard trial and error over the years that saying something like “go upstairs and get dressed” rarely works out. Too many opportunities for his thoughts to be diverted, or for him to forget what he was in the middle of doing and what’s supposed to come next. If we stay close, and say out loud each and every action he’s supposed to take, he can stay on task, but if not … we may end up hearing later about an amazing adventure that a dragon, an astronaut and wonder Woman went on, but we will be hearing it from a child who is naked except for one sock.

And on the one hand we’ve come to accept this quirkiness of the little guy’s, while on the other hand we are working with him on it because in certain arenas (school, mostly) it’s simply not going to work out well for him if he wanders off constantly and never finishes anything on his own. So I have to admit it was extremely gratifying to see him complete a 10-step task without incident. He even avoided the pitfall I myself am prone to succumb to to this day, which is filling the cup entirely too full in step 6. He did everything the right way and in the right order, and it’s a minor, minor thing but still fairly encouraging. Reason to smile, at the very least.

It’s certainly not the watershed moment after which everything will change, I know that. He’s still inherently resistant to giving things full and necessary attention, unless it’s something he really wants for himself. (He must have been jonesing something fierce for milk.) Some time, I don’t know, a couple-few months ago I started encouraging, and then insisting on, him washing himself in the tub. And now, it’s still something where I have to verbally walk him through it, so it’s hardly saving me any time (it probably takes longer this way) but it just seems age-apprpriate for him, and so. But just the other night, he looked at me with profound (manufactured) sadness and said, “My life was better when you used to wash me.” Which got him in response a slightly (but only slightly) more sympathetic version of “too bad, suck it up”. So, he has a way to go towards proper autonomy, and I will actually consider it a significant victory for both of us when and if he gets there, and if he never ever 100% does, I will not be utterly shocked. Some people always need a little smidge of extra looking after. Hopefully they have other virtues that outweigh this fact.

The funny thing is that the little girl seems to be racing for autonomy with much less, if any, prompting. (Which is in itself delightfully recursive.) She can wash herself in the tub just fine, and only needed to be offered the opportunity to demonstrate such ability, rather than a steady campaign of gently escalating insistence. I worry a great deal of the time about her as the only girl sibling and the middle child and every other tough luck circumstance she’s been dealt, but every now and then I think it might all work out for the best, because she’ll be the kind of person who rises to the challenge and overcomes the adversity rather than allowing herself to be held back by it. And more power to her.

Of course every coin has two sides, and in the case of my daughter that means that her determination and independent spirit apply to everything, not just the things that make my and my wife’s lives easier. All well and good if we want her to do something on her own which she also wants to do on her own, but if we butt heads, dang that girl has some battle-tested horns.

So as always our own children gives us plenty of potent reminders that we should be careful what we wish for. If we have to micromanage them, at least we always know what they’re doing. If we have to rein them in from remaking the entire world (or at least large sections of our house) in their own image, at least we can sometimes channel that energy in productive directions. It’s a mixed bag, and every day is an adventure. Plus some day my wife and I will be old, and we will no doubt both butt heads with our kids and need them to help us get through the simple things they take for granted. So what goes around comes around, at that.

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