I was having a bath late last night, the whole house closed up and asleep, when I heard little footsteps padding across the carpet in my toddler’s room. I sat up and stared at her bedroom door, watched as the handle slowly lowered, careful to avoid the squeak, until it was fully down. There was a moment’s pause, and then the door started to move, inching open, achingly slow. A rod of darkness appeared, became a column, and wider still, right up until the moment my gruff daddy voice broke the spell with ‘What’s the matter, Izzie?’
Silence. Nothing moved.
The handle was still down, so she was just on the other side of the door in the dark, frozen in silence. I waited, and neither of us breathed. I wondered what she was thinking – you could practically hear the cogs whirring around inside her head.
And then slowly, achingly slow, the door started to close again. Little by little the column became the rod again, and less. I watched as it pressed quietly up against the jamb, the handle edging upwards past the squeak until it was once more horizontal, and she was gone without a word, if ever she was there in the first place. It was as though I’d been visited by a ghost in the night.
Or maybe, she was just pissed it was me in the bath and not her mummy.
Watching a two-and-a-half year old working out how the world works, and her place within it, is a fascinating experience. Whether it’s cause and effect, strategic planning, or human social relationships, she approaches them sometimes with an awareness bordering on prodigy status, and sometimes like a donkey trying to pin a tail on itself.
She has a good understanding of the hierarchy in our house. Nowadays, her mother is pretty-much a playmate who lets her stay up late at night, draw on her face, and get away with almost anything, while I’m the authority figure who puts her to bed, straps her into the car seat and makes her finish her cereal before she can have yoghurt – hence why when she heard it was me in the bath and not her mother, she crept back into bed instead of continuing out onto the landing.
So, since she recognises me as the highest authority, she goes to her mummy for a yes, and me only when that fails. Like the other day when she went up to her mother and said, ‘Me have choc-choc biscuit?’ and when my wife said no, she came and asked me.
‘No,’ my wife repeated, whereupon my daughter turned to her and said, ‘Shush, mummy, me talking to daddy. Daddy, me have some?’
But acknowledging I’m in charge doesn’t stop her trying it on, however. Like when I was bathing her the other night, and asked my wife to watch her a moment when I settled the baby. That done, I returned to the bathroom, my wife left, and I said to my daughter, ‘Right, let’s get you out and ready for bed.’
‘But mummy said ten minutes.’
‘Did she, now? Mummy!’ I shouted. ‘Did you tell her she could stay in the bath another ten minutes?’
‘No, I said she’d be getting out as soon as you got back.’
It’s not exactly difficult to see through her, especially when she says, ‘But you said…’ and I know damn well that I didn’t.
Her new strategy is just as transparent. If I’m in the kitchen and she’s in the lounge and I tell her not to do something, she comes up to me and says, ‘Me close the door, you not see,’ pushes it closed, and goes right back to what she was doing, as though out of sight is out of mind. She doesn’t yet understand that if I can’t see something, it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.
But that’s not to say she’s not a good strategist – on the contrary, she shows impressive forward planning. The other day, when I was in the baby’s room trying to get her to sleep, I saw my toddler’s door swing open and a pillow fly out over the stair gate onto the landing. The sounds of struggling within, and then a foot appeared over the top of the gate, a pair of hands, a little head.
‘What are you doing?’ I barked, striding onto the landing, and she froze halfway. She’d got her suitcase out of the cupboard, dragged it over to the door, propped it against the stair gate and climbed on top of it…but not before dropping down a pillow to soften her landing.
She said nothing, just slowly drew her foot back over, climbed down off the suitcase, dragged it inwards, and closed the door behind her. If she’d been a cartoon villain, she’d have clicked her fingers and said, ‘Foiled. And I’d have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for my pesky dad.’
She never came back to claim the pillow.
But she has one sure fire weapon in her arsenal that she uses on a daily basis – the need to do a wee. It’s amazing how often she needs a wee when she is sitting on the naughty step, wants to get down from the dinner table, or has just been told to tidy up her toys. I guess she knows that letting her sit there and wet herself, getting it all over the chairs and carpet, is something we won’t risk, because we can’t tell whether it’s genuine or a ruse. It’s the only tool she has to get her own way, and it works.
So imagine her surprise next time, when she discovers we won’t let her get her own way. We can’t let her think the threat of wetting yourself is a good strategy for life – you’re not going to get that promotion if you walk into your boss’s office and say, ‘Give me the job, or I’ll make a little puddle in this chair.’ And if she does wet herself? Well – there’s always soap and water for that.