My one-year-old son, Johnny, is a merry little soul. I read a sentence somewhere about “the solid, unkillable children of the poor” and that reminds me of him. We are not destitute but Scottie and I both come from lower-middle-class families and Johnny has not exactly had all the advantages. He gets plenty to eat, people give him second-hand toys (but he loves the yellow duckie I got him from the dollar store best) and we keep his bedroom heated even when the rest of the house is cold. And somehow I was never afraid that this one wasn’t going to make it. He’s just too strong.
The funny thing is, Johnny’s a risk-taker. It’s as if he knows he’s one of those unkillable children and he has a surfeit of safety he needs to use up. Naturally, I have to restrain him from danger at every turn. It falls to me to determine what discipline is necessary when he insists on running into the street or playing with bottles of chemicals.
All of this came together this morning in one of those moments where you have to punish a child but you are trying really hard not to laugh. Johnny would not sit down in his high chair for any pleading or scolding or reasoning. He just looked at me with that exact grin you see in the picture and reasoned back, calling up his best baby words in well-modulated tones.
So it came down to a smack on the bottom. The point, especially at this age, is not to hurt him. It’s just to put some force behind my command. So I smacked him and gently, carefully sat him back down. This happened maybe three or four times.
I was making his eggs and realized he’d been quiet for awhile so I turned around and he was standing up again. I was so frustated I didn’t say or do anything. I just looked at him with a cocked eyebrow and gave him a chance to do the right thing.
He cocked his eyebrow back, that arched one he gets from me. “Naughty” he said clearly, and looked back at me sternly. I didn’t let him see me laugh.
Johnny, like Harriet and Lord Peter’s son, is simply willing to accept a consequence every now and then in exchange for adventure forbidden. It’s even possible that he was simply born with extra good judgment. (From my viewpoint it’s a dangerous risk to allow him to stand up in his high chair. From his point of view it might not be a risk at all as long as he keeps one hand on the backboard.) When I try to imagine what this will look like twenty years from now I see a strong, confident young man who, though not reckless, can judge with finer precision than I where to draw the line and when to take a chance.
A cautious, docile child is easier to raise, but a cautious, docile adult will miss out on a lot of life because of his inability to calculate and stratify risks, or to make decisions and feel confident about them. I believe it’s a mistake to try to break the will of a child like Johnny.
In fact, I believe it’s a sin to break any part of a child, spiritual or physical. Building up, not destruction, is the aim of the good parent.
In this context, discipline becomes more an informing ritual than a harrowing experience. Taking something away when he disobeys his Mum’s safety rule may be the danger that makes his life worth while.