I was sitting on the toilet in our upstairs bathroom when I heard a rattling noise at the base of the stairs. Adam, our 18 month old, was tinkering with the baby gate. Months ago he had learned to overcome this barricade by holding on with both hands, flinging his full weight backward, ripping the gate free, and tumbling it down on top of himself.
Recently, he’d advanced his skills, now pulling only one corner free, climbing through the gap, then pulling the gate back into place behind him, leaving no evidence for a parent to discover he was now roaming freely about second floor. Our baby gate no longer functions as a barrier, but rather an alarm device, alerting the home that Adam is on the verge of overrunning his boundaries, and delaying him enough for a responsible person to intercept the danger, but in the bathroom, I was in no position to take action.
Instead, I listened for confirmation that he had completed his mini-ninja maneuver. I heard the rhythmic, thump, thump, thump as he began to climb the stairs, and as those thumps drew nearer, a flash of images burst into my mind. The door to Jacob’s bedroom hanging wide open, his prized model USS Arizona, which he spent weeks painstakingly painting and gluing together, suddenly smashed into a thousand pieces and strewn across the floor; the following screaming, tears, and further weeks spent repairing that which would never be the same. I awoke from this nightmarish reverie and found myself sprinting across the upstairs, pants about my ankles, closing doors before Adam arrived.
After I returned to finish up in the bathroom, Adam appeared at the door, gave me a half-hearted “Da” in greeting, and then began rummaging through the bottom drawers of our bathroom cabinet, where he found a single, loose, unused, tampon. Standing erect, he threw it in my face then left the room. I scrambled, trying to clean up the scattered debris from the drawer, when Adam ran past the bathroom door carrying a squeeze bottle of honey that Nicole had used to soothe one of the boys’ coughs the previous evening and left sitting on the edge of the dresser.
Sometimes I wonder how, after 10 years of parenting, Nicole still doesn’t think like a toddler. It’s simple: place whatever item you wish to make secure on the highest surface possible, as far from the edge as possible, and then increase both height and distance by eight feet. But I often suspect Nicole’s game is far deeper than simple incompetence. She’s too observant to miss these little things. I think about the other morning when she gave Adam a bowl of yogurt, then immediately left for work, so complete in its brilliance, the total derailing of my morning: the surfaces to be cleaned, clothes to be changed and washed, children to be bathed, facilitated in one simple act. I remember the practical jokes I have subjected her to over the years, ponder this masterpiece of yogurt sabotage, and then smile. The honey says she loves me.
I tracked down Adam, who was using my dresser drawers as a ladder. I sat him on my lap to put his shoes on, felt his mouth wrap in a tiny circle around my forearm, and his teeth sink into my flesh. He’s a biter, this little son of mine.
I used to know how to fix biting. Our first son didn’t bite, or hit, or throw things at people. If he did, the behavior was remedied quickly, efficiently, and perfectly. That was back when I had answers. I’d see a child behaving poorly and instantly know how to fix that problem. I don’t have answers anymore; I just have children. Adam is or fourth son. At some point I realized that humans are complex things. Discipline is important, but each child responds to it in his own way, and in his own timing. Jacob broods, Caleb cries, Isaac screams, and Adam takes a chunk out of your arm.
He won’t be a biter forever. This will change. There are signs that it already is. Parenting is about patient, persistent action spread across years, which must be accompanied by as much love as correction. Change happens slowly, incrementally, and is often hardest to see for those closest to it.
I unlocked Adam’s jaws from my arm, and carried him downstairs. I set him free to run and play, while I flopped on the couch to nurse my bruised arm; but, in a second, Adam was tapping on the side of my face. He wanted on the couch also, to snuggle up on my belly, one of those precious toddler moments that make the whole effort worthw- never mind, he just wanted to blow his nose in my hair.
Nathan Hackman is a stay-at-home dad to four boys, one with cerebral palsy. He writes about the amazing adventure of parenting with a few extra challenges. In his free time he . . . doesn’t have free time.