We took Bub to the fair last weekend, where we happened upon a live Birds of Prey exhibit. Bub and I slipped into the back of the auditorium just as the trainer was unveiling a desert hawk. "Look!" I exclaimed, kneeling down and pointing with exaggerated enthusiasm. It has always been difficult to direct Bub’s gaze – pointing gestures do not come naturally to him – but on this occasion he saw immediately what I meant and took off down the centre aisle, legs pumping at top speed, shouting "It’s a bird!" I dashed after him and managed to snatch him up about five rows from the front. As his outraged howls rent the air (met with mostly sympathetic glances), I noticed that instead of struggling in my arms, he was leaning back against me. It wasn’t the restraint of his freedom or frustrated desire that prompted his wails – it was the realization that he had done the wrong thing, that he had somehow failed to discern the rules governing this unfamiliar environment and had made a public spectacle of himself. (I should note before moving on here that Bub calmed down in time to thoroughly enjoy the tawny owl and red-tailed hawk, and he forgot his embarrassment sufficiently to leap from his seat in excitement every time a bird swooped overhead.)
It has always been important to Bub to do things correctly. He responds delightedly to words of praise and is liberal in giving praise to others ("Good boy!" he’ll exclaim when his sister fits a puzzle piece into its place, his tone one of warm congratulation). On occasions when he knows that he’s broken the rules, he promptly demands a hug as if to reassure himself that he is still loved and accepted even though he just threw mommy’s Napoleon Dynamite DVD into the kitchen garbage.
And yet, for all his addiction to praise and approval, he is still fiercely independent. I considered using the adverbs "sturdily" or "staunchly" in that sentence, but they fail to do justice to the ferocity with which he resists any attempt at guidance or correction. To the best of my knowledge he has no Dutch blood in his veins, yet he often reminds me of my best friend’s favourite Dutch-man joke: "Wooden shoes, wooden heads, wooden listen." Bub is a child who will spend twenty minutes trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and he’ll slap away any hand that tries to show him a better way.
Since the Pie has started to acquire language, I’ve been startled to see how naturally she does things that Bub has learned only after a long and sometimes painful process of instruction on our part and conscious effort on his. When Bub points at something, you can see him carefully folding down his fingers, struggling to wave his hand in the right direction. When the Pie points at something, all her energies go pulsing down her arm and out the tip of her index finger – you can almost hear the pop and the word "Alohomora!" After much demonstration, Bub has finally learned that he can use the word "Help!" to summon parental assistance (in preference to screaming in rage and frustration); hot on his heels, the Pie has picked up the word from her brother and now uses it even more frequently than her previous favourites, "mama" and "kitty."
The first time the Pie brought me a closed container and held it out with the simple instruction of "Hep!" I was amazed and delighted. That was a week ago. Since then, I have learned to fear and respect the tyranny of the word. No longer will my daughter sit happily with a toy while mummy reads the newspaper; now it’s "hep hep hep" from dawn until dusk. What has startled me most, perhaps, is her lack of stubbornness, how readily she gives up in the face of difficulty. She will take three, maybe four stabs at getting the oval into her Tupperware shape-sorter, and then she’ll unfold my hand, place the oval on it, and command, "Hep!" This is something the Bub would never do – he would sooner eat a roast beef sandwich or voluntarily get out of the bathtub than invite parental interference in the sacred realm of his toys. "Help" is something he solicits only when absolutely necessary for things like opening the piano or moving a heavy chair – adult tasks that lie outside the sphere within which he expects himself to do things perfectly on his own.
Perfectionism is not necessarily a desirable trait, of course, but I’ll admit that I’ve been a bit alarmed at my daughter’s lack of persistence. "You can do it!" I’ll say encouragingly, putting the Tupperware square back into her hand, only to have it thrust back in my face with a wail of protest. "Hep!" she insists stubbornly (she’s more stubborn than she looks, this one), so by way of a compromise I decide that we can accomplish this task together. We both grasp the yellow square, her small hand in my larger one, and manoeuver it through the hole. And as the Pie applauds appreciatively, I realize that this is the point of the exercise for her: not to do it correctly, or quickly, or easily, but to do it together. It’s a lucky thing that our children teach us how to parent them, I think, because I’m not always that quick on the uptake and sometimes I need a little help.