My daughter is only 18 months old, so why do I keep worrying about what life will be like 10 or 15 years from now? Hazel is becoming more willful, talkative, and silly every hour — so getting through each day and savoring her gleeful antics should be enough to keep me occupied. The problem is that I know people who have teenagers.
I see what they go through, and now I’m plagued by fears that in, say, 2026, the magical relationship I have with Hazel will give way to a downward spiral of suspicion, lies, and arguments about why she’s not allowed to take the hover car. Then she’ll be lost to me.
By the time she escapes the cloud of teen-angst, she’ll be away at college, after which she’ll move to Utah to dig up rocks with some doofus anthropology-grad-student boyfriend. The future is not looking good.
Am I being selfish? Well, yes, but I’m equally concerned for Hazel. In a few years, she’ll have to contend with all the other toddlers who’ve become teenagers, too. A recent incident gave me a window into what that may be like.
Once a week, I take Hazel to the YMCA for “Chaotic Toddler Free-For-All” (or maybe it’s called “Indoor Playground,” I can’t remember), an entire gymnasium full of cushy mats, plastic playground equipment, and every kind of ball imaginable. Throngs of toddlers, parents, and nannies fill the room, with balls flying in all directions, pieces of banana falling underfoot, and occasional clouds of ripe diaper aroma wafting through the air. It’s a scene, and Hazel loves it.
On this occasion, after stuffing basketballs into the little hoop and climbing up the slide, Hazel made for the cubes — a couple of 3-feet-tall hollow plastic blocks, with a big round hole on every side, so kids can climb in and out of them. They’re very popular among the 2- to 4-year-old set, but Hazel was lucky enough to find one empty. She likes to organize, so she started collecting balls and putting them in the cube. Then, she climbed in through the side to enjoy her treasures.
No sooner was she inside, than a boy slightly older and much bigger took an interest, which is to say he began hurling balls into the cube. This put me in that stressful predicament, familiar to parents everywhere: protecting my child while trying to remain diplomatic toward somebody else’s annoying kid.
“Be careful!” I told him, while deflecting any projectiles that might clobber my 24-pound daughter.
Next, he scrambled on top of the cube and began lowering himself feet first onto Hazel’s head. Maybe I should have picked him up and removed him, but it’s never that simple. You can’t let some clueless kid hurt your baby, but the moment you put a hand on him, his delinquent parent will take a break from texting, see you torturing little Johnny, and freak out at you. And maybe sue you, for good measure.
After I guided him safely down, he sat right next to Hazel amidst all the bouncy balls. She looked confused, but not scared, so I didn’t intervene. It’s all part of learning about the world, I reasoned, although something about this kid rubbed me the wrong way. His sloppy bowl cut? The hunched shoulders? His thoughtless, self-indulgent behavior? He reminded me of a loutish high school kid. Here he was, having finagled his way into a tight space with a naïve young girl, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her as if at the end of a couch in some dark room at a party.
Take it easy, I told myself. This kid is — what? Three years old? He isn’t working some sly plan. And at that moment, he put one of his big hands on Hazel’s knee, leaned toward her and started mumbling something in her ear.
“We’re done here!” I heard myself say out loud, while reaching in to pull Hazel from the back seat of that creepy little Hyundai. I mean, playcube. Whatever.
Us parents have to supervise our toddlers every second. We rarely get a break, and it’s exhausting. But it’s terrifying to realize that as they grow older, we won’t be able to constantly oversee what’s happening in their lives.
Looking back at my childhood in upstate New York, I’m surprised by all the freedom my parents afforded me. I was a bit like Huck Finn, traipsing around the neighborhood, fishing down at the pond, and exploring the woods with no adults to be seen. Even so, I always felt my parents’ presence. They allowed me independence, but they provided me with some common sense and a good moral compass to find my way.
As Hazel continues to grow, I have to remember that I can’t supervise every event in her life. It’s hard to imagine not being there to protect her, but my real responsibility is to provide her with the skills to take care of herself. (Which reminds me — I have to find out if the Y offers self-defense classes for 2 year olds.)
The clod toddler finally wandered off, while Hazel sat on my lap, eating a snack. Suddenly, a little boy with a mop of curly hair popped his head up out of the top of the cube.
“Hi!” he said. “My name is Jake!”
“Hi,” I replied. “I’m Tim.”
“Oh!” he said. “What’s her name?”
“This is Hazel,” I told him.
“Wanna play catch?” he asked, holding up a playground ball.
That’s more like it, I thought.
“Jake,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you.”
Tim Perrins is a part-time stay-at-home dad who lives with his wife and their rampaging toddler in Park Slope, Brooklyn. More of his thoughts about babies and other things that confuse him can be found at www.Revolt