I want to give Langston full explanations for his infractions. But that short, sharp bit of invective, the code word I’m sure my mother used with my brothers and me when we were toddlers and pre-schoolers, is the word I’ve chosen—or rather the utterance which bursts out of me–when Langston commits an act I can no longer dismiss as babyish cuteness or curiosity. He’s my baby, but at almost two, he’s not a baby anymore.
“You may not climb on the coffee table. That’s bad!”
“Stop throwing toys. It’s bad!”
Or sometimes, I forget to articulate what he has done wrong and just yell, “Bad!”
Then I give him my version of a timeout. I hold him on my lap for a few seconds. I don’t let him grab a toy or make me laugh, though the latter can sometimes be difficult! When we both can no longer stand each other, I ask Langston if he is ready to be nice, whatever that means.
“Yeah,” he says amiably.
As he wriggles away, I chide myself for my lack of specificity. But after a brief timeout, Langston usually returns to a state of relative equanimity.
I tell myself it could be worse. I could be cursing, abusing him or holding grudges. But how did all of my verbosity degenerate into a monosyllable? I feel illiterate. I feel like the mom of a toddler. The word, bad, has highlighted the differences in opinion my husband and I have about what is considered to be a real problem. James gets upset if Langston tries to turn on the stereo. I think Langston should learn how to access music, and furthermore, I would rather have him mess with James’s stereo than with my computer. My husband might think I’m a bad parent for letting him play with the stereo, but Langston knows the difference between on and off. But I guess the real problem with “bad” occurs when my son decides to try out the label. “Bad!” he said to me one day when I burped before I could get out my apology. It was an accusation I’d absolutely never given him when he burped, even when he forgot to say his version of “excuse me,” which sounds more like “thank you” to me. “That’s not bad,” I told him. “Burping isn’t bad.” Why, then, do I remind him to say “excuse me?”
A few days ago, I returned from a particularly frustrating day at my new job. It was hard to switch immediately from Teacher into Mom, and I felt the overwhelming adult need to eat, to check e-mail, to listen to the news, to think. Langston immediately intuits when I’m mentally not with him, and he figures out ways to get my attention. This time, he began throwing all of his board books onto the floor with a hollow, thumping sound. “That’s bad,” I told him tiredly, once I’d figured out that he wasn’t just trying to pick out a book for us to read together.
Still he kept throwing the books. I helped him to pick them up, and then he threw them to the floor again.
Finally, I turned him to face me. “Langston, books aren’t toys!” I said, “You don’t just throw them around and make noise with them. You pick one, and we read it.”
Langston seemed to mull this over for a moment. “Mess,” he said. “Mess mess mess.”
I had been trying to explain his potential mistreatment of the written word. But “mess” was as good of an explanation as any. And besides, wasn’t part of my frustration really annoyance about my having to make things neat again? “That’s right,” I told him. “you made a mess. Clean it up.”
“Na-nup!” he responded cheerfully, remembering the song he learned in daycare.
Together we returned the books to the coffee table, and I felt a partial sense of relief that I left bad behind, and Langston understood. Respecting words could wait for another evening.