My Funny Toddler

‘No chi-shen no poo daddy!’

That’s what my daughter shouts every morning when I let the chooks out of their house – no, chickens, don’t poop on my daddy.

Like most of the things she says, you have to train your ear to hear it properly. Having a toddler, you spend your life picking through the mispronunciations and the comedy juxtapositions, fighting to make sense of it all. Every morning when I brush her teeth, I have to put poo-paste on the poo-brush. All day I’m asked to shit on the phwoar. And every night I put boo-balls in the bart so she can have a bubble-bath.

But sometimes, I frankly don’t have a clue what she’s saying. That’s when she shouts at me in frustration. Because what’s plain to her isn’t always obvious to everyone else.

Like yesterday, when I asked her what she wanted for lunch. ‘Piss, please,’ she said excitedly.

‘Piss?’

‘Piss, please, daddy.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Piss, daddy. Piss. Pissssss!’

‘Honey, she says she wants piss for lunch.’

‘She means crisps.’

‘Oh thank God for that.’

At least it’s different to what she normally requests – ‘Cheese and marmite,’ morning, noon and night. I’m fine putting it on her toast, in her wraps and croissants. Not on chips or fish fingers. I refuse to put it on her yoghurt. Tonight, just to shut her up, I put a big dollop of marmite in the risotto I was making. It’s not an experiment I intend to repeat.

Then there’s her favourite expression. Every few minutes she sits on the floor among her toys, looks up at me and says, ‘Punch me, daddy. Punch me.’ Or she’ll be hanging halfway over the stairgate. ‘Punch me, daddy, punch me.’ Or slipping off her seatbelt while I’m doing sixty along a country lane, forcing me to pull over yet again. ‘Punch me, punch me.’ Don’t tempt me…

From contextual clues, I think it means some combination of ‘Play with me’ and ‘help me,’ but where she’s got it from, I have no idea.

Driving has become awkward of late. Every time I stop – at lights, in traffic, at a junction – she shouts, ‘Doe!’ and scares the life out of me. And no matter how I try to explain that I can’t go because there are four cars in front of me, it makes no difference to her. ‘Doe, daddy, doe, doe!’

In the car, she also has a captive audience. I’m fine with the singing – it’s mostly Wheels on the Bus. ‘The conductor on the bus says “All Aboard”‘ becomes ‘Ad-jee boose “ball baball,”‘ but that’s okay. What’s definitely not okay is when she says, ‘Daddy, a diddin?’

‘What am I doing? I’m driving, sweetheart.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Driving. I literally just said it.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Conjugating Latin verbs. I’m teaching a class of underprivileged children to read Martial’s epigrams in the original language.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a diddin?’

‘Quadratic equations. It’s part of a project to solve the energy crisis using quantum mechanics.’

‘Ah. Daddy, a mummy diddin?’

But if I don’t answer, I just get an endless stream of ‘daddy, daddy, daddy,’ so I pick the lesser of those two evils, and die a little inside each day.

She thinks I’m the master of horses, too. We’re lucky enough to live on the edge of the New Forest, so wherever we go in the car, we have to avoid scores of ponies walking in the road. And every time we pass a horse or two, she says, ‘More gee-gee. Daddy, more gee-gee. Daddy? Daddy!’

‘I can’t magically conjure up horses out of thin air!’ I reply.

‘Oh,’ she replies, subdued. And then, ‘More gee-gee, daddy. More gee-gee!’

She’s started experimenting with her voice too. She’ll scream with excitement. And then, discovering the wonderful noise, walk around screaming for the next ten minutes. Same with crying – she gets over whatever made her cry, but then becomes so enamoured of the noise she’s making she keeps it going. On and on and on. Until she asks you to punch her again.

This has made bedtimes somewhat unpleasant. I read to her at night – we’ve finished Treasure Island and are halfway through Black Beauty – and she’s started making this weird groaning hum every time I talk. I can hear it as I’m reading, but every time I stop at the end of a sentence or pause to take a breath, she stops. It’s like I’ve got a ghostly echo.

This same experimentation has spread to many of her reactions, which have become completely over-the-top. If I show her anything, draw anything, make anything, she looks at it, puts her hands flat on her cheeks, and goes, ‘Whooooooooaaaaaaa daddy! Wooooooooow! Daddy, whoooooaaaaa!’

She’s either incredibly impressed or her understanding of sarcasm is well beyond her 25-months.

That said, she seemed very enamoured of the tower I built this morning. She held up her index finger – ‘Wait,’ she said, rummaged through her toy box, returned with a pretend pink camera and proceeded to photograph it from all angles. Then, the tower preserved in pretend posterity, she kicked it down and laughed.

Impressively for her age, she can count to ten. Unfortunately, she thinks there are eleven numbers, since clearly it goes, ‘One, two, three, go, four, five…’ And she has her colours, too, although she gets very annoyed when I can’t tell if she’s talking about daddy’s ‘wed car’ or mummy’s ‘whet car’ (red or white).

But the worst thing she does, the most horrible thing she manages to say, is whenever she sees me without my top on. She smiles, points at my belly, and says with delight, ‘Baby girl!’

No, I’m not pregnant. It’s just fat.

‘Daddy baby girl!’

I’m now on a diet. Punch me.

The key to good parenting

I was recently asked what makes a good parent. You can fill a library – a thousand libraries – with the possible answers, so I could have gone on about patience, tolerance, a sense of humour, imposing boundaries, being consistent, enjoying the moment, and all those other nuggets of wisdom, if I wasn’t sure that most people already know these things.

Instead, to save you the time and the eye-strain, I can sum up what makes a good parent in just two words: emotional resilience. Everything else stems from that.

I think that society is very confused about what a good parent looks like. The parent with the perfectly behaved, adorable little angel of a child is lauded as ‘good’, while that with the bratty, obnoxious little oik they have to drag out of the supermarket because they’re screaming is judged as ‘bad’. I know, because I have done this myself, inferring the relative merits of the parent from a brief glimpse at the behaviour of their child.

But this is, in fact, a very unreliable method of gauging an individual’s parenting ability, because all kids are different – some are easy, most are a mixture of tranquil and testing, and some are right little bastards who, in an earlier generation, would have been destined for birch and borstal. It’s not so much the behaviour of the child but the behaviour of the parent that reveals their abilities or otherwise.

You see, being a good parent isn’t about succeeding when things are going well, the toddler’s perfectly happy and everything is hunky-dory – those are the times to sit back, relax and bask in the glow of strangers who deem you the very model of a perfect parent.

No, the real test of your parenting prowess is what you do, and how well you cope, when things are going horribly, horribly wrong, the little one is screaming fit to burst her lungs, and you want nothing more than to run away, find a dark place where you can curl into a ball, and hide away as you ride out the storm. That’s when you discover whether you’re a good parent or not, and that’s when you find whether you have the strength to rise up in the face of adversity – or not, as the case may be.

Being a parent, you’re tested every day. What your toddler loves to eat on Monday she decides is vomit on Tuesday, no matter how long it took you to make. At home on Wednesday she’s as good as gold while on Thursday at the restaurant she behaves so badly you have to leave early in defeat. And on Friday she’s using the potty like a pro, but on Saturday pisses on the sofa and then craps on your shoe, and she’s so upset, you break your heart trying to console her.

The hours of crying, the thrown toys, the irritating whining, the tiredness, the dressing and redressing, the bathing and washing, the repetitive game playing, the incessant highs and lows and successes and failures, the constant battle of wills and the endless sacrificing of your own hunger, thirst, wants, needs, dreams – it is so difficult not to be affected by all that, not to get run down.

That’s what I mean by emotional resilience. If you want to be a good parent, want to keep going in the same calm, controlled, reliable fashion you’ve done from the start, you have to find a way of protecting your emotions, shutting off a part of yourself, so as not to become overwhelmed. If you let things get to you, if they weigh heavy on your heart, you’re never going to make it.

As I said before, emotional resilience is pretty much all you need to be a good parent, because it is the foundation of everything. Nobody sets out to be a bad parent – nobody decides they want to lose their temper at their kids, shout at them, hit them, make them cry; nobody thinks one day they’ll start to ignore their child, sit them in front of the TV, dump them with family and child minders and start hiding at work; nobody plans to simply give up and overlook their child’s bad behaviour because they can’t deal with it, or give them the chocolate bar because it’s easier than arguing, or leave them in nappies till they’re five because it’s just too hard – but I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of these behaviours.

Hell, I went to a fair yesterday, and I saw most of them – parents losing control and swearing at their kids, parents looking the other way as their kids misbehaved, parents buying things for the kids to stop them whining – anything for an easy life. I don’t believe these parents started out this way. I don’t believe they ever thought they’d be like this. But somewhere along the way, they’ve become so run down by being parents that they’re just trying to survive – and good parenting has gone out the window.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if your child is well behaved or not. In the grand scheme of things, all your mistakes as a parent, all your failures, aren’t anywhere near as important as you think they are. What’s important is that you never stop trying to be a good parent; that you persevere, no matter how difficult; and that despite wanting to run away, or give in, or give up, you don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s the only way you can be a good parent. And ultimately, your child will be all the better for it.

 

Child Protection Issues

Long term readers of this blog might have noticed that, up until Izzie’s first birthday, I regularly shared pictures on this site, but have not done so in the past year. This was a deliberate decision, and I shall explain why.

Putting photographs in an album or in a frame for display ensures that you retain control of them – who has access to them, what is done with them, and where they are seen. Putting pictures on the internet means that you have zero control over what is done with that image. As Izzie is too young to give informed consent over what is shared, that right passes to me as her father and legal guardian, and in this capacity I feel it is my duty to protect her image and prevent it being placed in the public domain until she is able to make that decision for herself.

I am not inflexible on this position – I do, for example, allow a few, carefully selected professional photos of my daughter to accompany magazine articles, etc. – but in general, sharing pictures of our day-to-day life is not something I feel comfortable doing.

I am sure that, without my having to explicitly state it, most readers will be able to infer which people I don’t want having access to my daughter’s photographs.

Whenever I have seen such issues raised – keeping photos of children away from the attention of people who might wish them harm – there is always somebody who pipes up with: ‘Most abuse goes on inside the home by family members or trusted friends and neighbours.’ And this is undoubtedly true. And then there are others who say: ‘We can’t censor everything just because there are some sickoes out there.’ Which I also agree with – hence I allow the aforementioned professional photos to illustrate magazine articles.

But the fact remains that, while the risk is low, there are predators out there. While I commend people for continuing to share photos because they won’t let the sickoes dictate their behaviour, as a dad I do not want some disturbed individual looking at pictures of my child, because I know that they are.

How do I know this? One of the interesting benefits of writing a blog is that you receive information about visitors to your site – anonymous, of course, but it records what country they’re from, what they’re clicking on, how they came to your site, and so forth. Every so often, you’ll even get to see the search terms they typed into a search engine – the very words they entered that brought up your page in the results.

I always think of myself as pretty unshockable, but the search terms somebody used to find and access this blog yesterday made me feel sick. I won’t repeat them here, but I will say that they contained the words ‘dad’ and ‘little girl’, and whoever typed them needs to be on a watch list somewhere. That such a person has visited my site makes me feel grubby by association and more than validates my caution about sharing pictures.

So, to all my fellow parents and bloggers who might read this: take a moment and think before you share something. Probably no harm will come from it; probably no sick weirdo pervert is ever going to see it; but no matter how small a chance, perhaps they might.

Managing the Toddler Stage

When people see you struggling with a heavy load, they don’t ask if you’re doing an awesome job or exceeding all your expectations, or if carrying heavy loads comes naturally to you – they say, ‘Can you manage?’

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

As a dad, and an autistic dad at that, I want to be the best parent on the planet – guide, teacher, confidante, protector, therapist, playmate, master and friend. I want to be friendly, understanding, patient, relaxed, calm, tolerant, respected and in control. I’m pretty sure that’s normal – no parent thinks to themselves, ‘Damn I wish I was worse at this than I am.’ But where I possibly differ from many is my rigid, black and white, all-or-nothing approach to the subject.

You see, to my way of thinking, if I’m not the best dad in the world, then I must be the worst; if I’m not excelling, then I’m failing; if I’m not winning then I’m most definitely losing. My benchmarks, my expectations and my standards are set so high you need oxygen and ice axes to reach them. This is unrealistic, and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me striving for greatness.

Up to now, this hasn’t been much of a problem. There have been trials and hardships, sure, but every step of the way I’ve overcome them. A bit of perseverance here, some tender loving care there – all it required was patience, endurance and a sense of humour. Simple.

Not so now that she’s hitting two. This terrible toddler stage is something else entirely.

Everything that took minutes before now takes hours. Everything that once was easy is now like quantum mechanics. And everything she used to do willingly has become a clash of nuclear powers that leaves only devastation in its wake.

Bedtime, for example. I used to put her down, read her a story, and that would be that – maybe I’d have to stick her back under the covers a couple of times overnight, but nothing more than that.

Now it’s like carrying a hissing, spitting baby tiger up the stairs, trying to avoid getting your eyes scratched out while enduring a barrage of feral, bestial roars that befuddle your senses and threaten to burst your eardrums. You put her down in bed, and she kicks off the covers and is at the bedroom door before you can escape. So you fight to lie her back down, and you reason, threaten, beg, cajole and finally bribe her with a story until she’s finally quiet and allows you to leave.

Three seconds after you close it, the door flies open and she hangs over the stairgate screaming blue bloody murder at you, as though the sky is falling down and you’re the one to blame. You hide in your bedroom, wait a minute and then pick her up, against her struggles, put her in bed, against her screams, throw the covers over her and race to the door.

And then the whole thing repeats.

It’s like being trapped in Tartarus with a cruel and unusual punishment picked out exclusively for you. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, putting her back in bed each time only to have her wrench open the door behind you and claw maniacally at the bars. Five minutes, six, seven. The screams descend into choking splutters, snorts, grunts, growls, a demon in your midst.

Until that wonderful, horrible moment, hours later, that she’s all cried out and sits on the floor like a dejected prisoner, rattling her dummy against the bars of the stairgate locking her in her room. And you sink to the floor yourself and you slither across the carpet to the stairs, lowering yourself inch by inch, praying they don’t creak because at the slightest sound she’ll start up again.

And you slink away and fall on the sofa, and you feel like bursting into tears because you’re battered and bruised, it’s all so hard and you can’t take it anymore.

And then she starts screaming again.

Unbelievably, the days can be worse. For the past three days, my home has been a war zone. The house is a mess, the floor covered with toys, and I decided that enough is enough. I told her she couldn’t get out any more toys, or watch Peppa Pig, until she had put her wooden blocks away. Two-and-a-half hours later, having screamed, cried, shouted, attacked me, laughed, giggled, batted her eyelids, hugged me, pleaded with me, thrown herself into the walls, thrown the blocks, hit me with her doll and overturned half of the furniture, she put the blocks away.

Did I feel jubilant, triumphant, victorious? Hell no. I felt emotionally raw from the hours of abuse, fighting to stay calm as she pressed every button and tested every boundary. I am the mountain worn away by the sea. But I consoled myself that the next time, it would be easier.

Yesterday, I told her to put away her wooden blocks before we went to the park. Three hours later, on the verge of screaming and crying myself, she put her blocks away. I won. At the cost of my soul and my sanity.

Today, to be fair, it only took one hour. But who knows how long it’ll take tomorrow?

I’ve never really understood the idea of picking your battles – I’ve always been of the opinion that if a principle is at stake then you attack it wherever you find it – but I’m discovering that flexibility in parenting a toddler is a must. After hours of fighting over the wooden blocks, when she started taking the DVDs out of their cases and putting them back in the wrong ones, you know what I did?

I pretended I didn’t see.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand, nailed my colours to the mast – the wooden blocks are the issue on which I hang my hat. If I can master this one thing, then I’ll deal with everything else, but I can’t do it all at once and I don’t have the energy or the emotional resilience right now to be master of all things.

Because the truth is, while I might want to be good at every aspect of parenting, to excel and overcome and be the best damned parent in the world, I’ve realised that in order to survive raising a toddler you have to lower your standards, relax your ideals and temper your expectations, or you’ll go crazy.

And that’s okay. Like the man with the heavy load, nobody is asking if I’m excelling – they’re asking if I can manage. And yes, I can.

That’s the lesson I take from this week – I might might want to conquer Everest, but setting my sights on Kilimanjaro as a more realistic alternative doesn’t make me a failure as a parent, does it?

Does it?

 

My Endearitating Toddler

My daughter has just reached a milestone of cognitive development – she has named a toy!

I’d like to say this is a proud moment, especially considering I never named any of my toys growing up, but in all honesty I’m not really loving what she’s called it.

‘Oh, what a lovely doll,’ people say, smiling at her. ‘Does she have a name?’

My daughter beams right back at them and replies, in her angelic voice, as though butter wouldn’t melt, ‘Chewbutts.’

‘Oh,’ they tend to reply. ‘Chewbutts?’

‘No,’ replies my daughter, and holds up her index finger like a teacher correcting a pupil’s pronunciation. ‘Chew. Butts.’

‘Well that’s an interesting name,’ they generally say. And then they give you that look, the one that is somehow sympathetic and supportive while simultaneously questioning your parenting ability and your fitness to reproduce.

This seems to be our lot in life at the moment. My daughter mastered her first complete sentence the other day, copying something from one of her toys: ‘I love cookies.’ But she doesn’t say cookies. She thinks she’s saying cookies, but she’s not.

She’s saying, ‘I love titties.’

She loves dropping it into conversation whenever and wherever she can. Particularly when you’re around judgemental strangers at the supermarket.

‘I love titties.’

‘Cookies.’

‘Titties.’

‘Cookies!’

I’ve created a word to describe this phenomenon – well, I’ve slammed together two pre-existing words, so it’s not that impressive:

Endearitating, adj. – those utterly adorable behaviours you cherish and seek to encourage that simultaneously drive you up the freaking wall.

Words are a real problem at the moment. I’m daddy, which is pretty obvious and straightforward. Nana is dada, which is a little more confusing. And dad means a multitude of things. So a typical conversation goes like this:

‘Daddy.’

‘Yes Izzie?’

‘Dad.’

‘Yes?’

‘Dad.’

‘What is it?’

‘Daddy?’

‘What!?’

‘Dad!’

‘What!? For the love of God, what do you want!?’

‘Dad! Dad!’

And then I realise she’s seen a cat out of the window – a dad. And she’s saying, daddy, look at dat, it’s a cat.

Those are the easy conversations – the ones with an object where she’ll shut up once you’ve acknowledged it. Harder still are the times she really is saying daddy and has no idea what she wants – but she’s damned sure she’s going to make you suffer until she gets it.

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes, darling?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Daddy?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Daddy?’

‘Yes?’

‘Daddy?’

‘I’m not going to keep doing this.’

‘Daddy? Daddy? Daddy! Dadd-deeee! DADD-DEEEE!’

‘What!?’

‘…daddy?’

She’s also reached that point where she cares deeply about other people, something that’s beautiful, and commendable, and gosh-darned annoying.

‘Where’s dada?’

‘Nana’s in France.’

‘Oh. And poppa?’

‘He’s with nana.’

‘And gry-ee?’

‘Granny’s also in France.’

‘George?’

‘He’s in France with granny.’

‘Oh. Dada?’

‘I just told you – she’s in France.’

‘And poppa?’

‘In France, with nana.’

‘Gry-ee?’

‘Like I said, granny’s in France, with George, before you ask.’

‘Oh. And dada?’

‘France! With poppa.’

‘And Gry-ee?’

‘She’s in France! With George, in France!’

‘Oh. And dada?’

This conversation occurs at least ten times a day. If we fail to answer, it’s a case of ‘Dada? Dada? Daddy, where’s dada? Dada? Daddy? Dada! Where’s dada? Where’s dada!’

And between these conversations, she picks up the TV controller, a wooden block, your watch, and talks into it as a phone. ‘Dada? Poppa?’ Then she hands it to you and says, ‘Dada, daddy. Daddy, dada.’ And you find yourself talking to your mum through your own shoe.

My sanity is hanging by a thread.

Rather adorably, she’s very concerned about our welfare, too. Rather annoyingly, she won’t let up. If you finish your breakfast before her, which is every day, she says:

‘Daddy, more.’

‘No, I’m fine thanks, I’ve finished.’

‘Daddy, more.’

‘No, I’ve finished.’

‘More, daddy.’

‘No more, I’ve finished.’

‘Daddy, more.’

‘Can you please just leave me alone?’

‘Yes. More daddy, daddy more. Daddy? More?’

There is also an obsession with making sure our toiletry habits are healthy and regular.

‘Daddy wee wee?’

‘No, daddy doesn’t need to wee wee.’

‘Daddy poo poo?’

‘Nope, I’m good, ta.’

‘Wee wee poo poo, daddy.’

‘No, I don’t need to.’

‘Daddy wee wee.’

‘No.’

‘Daddy poo poo.’

‘Go bother your mother.’

This same concern occurs if you happen to close your eyes for five seconds.

‘Daddy, tay?’

‘I’m okay, sweetie.’

‘Daddy, tay?’

‘Yes, I’m okay.’

And if, God-forbid, you lie back on the sofa and put your feet up, you’re met with, ‘Daddy, tay?’

‘Yes, I’m okay.’

‘Tup, daddy.’

‘Just give me thirty seconds to myself.’

‘Daddy, tup. Tup, daddy.’

And then she’ll climb onto my chest and start pulling at my eyelids to make sure I’m okay and I’m going to get up.

She’s also reached that important stage where she discovers the concept of ownership and has to decide what belongs to whom.

‘Daddy car.’

‘Yes, that’s my car.’

‘Mummy car.’

‘Yes, that’s mummy’s car.’

‘Daddy car.’

‘Uh-huh, that’s my car.’

‘Mummy car.’

‘Are we really doing this again?’

But at least that’s preferable to her notion that almost everything else belongs to her. Mine, mine, mine is a constant refrain in our house.

And she doesn’t turn two until next week. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

But you can’t get mad at her, even though you want to. She’s not doing it on purpose. At least, I hope she isn’t.

She truly is the most endearitating person I’ve ever met.

Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

A Toddler’s Social Understanding

The first eighteen-odd months of a child’s life, their social skills are fairly simple, given that they revolve around another person’s ability to meet their needs: ‘feed me or I’ll scream, too late, waaaaaahhhhhhh!’

Their first hand gestures – pointing – are merely to make it easier for you to meet those needs. ‘I want that. No, not that: that! What are you, a moron?’ At this stage, it’s difficult to argue that kids are social beings at all, given that they’re self-centred hedonists who think other people exist solely to satisfy their desires, and they only acquire social skills as a cynical ploy to better manipulate those around them. If they were bigger, we’d call them psychopaths, or perhaps ‘rock stars’. It’s a good thing they’re small.

Then things get a little less selfish. They start to understand the pleasures of giving and receiving affection, by kissing and hugging and asking to be held. Around the same time they discover it can be fun to share their enjoyment with others – playing basic games, singing interactive songs, dancing, joking and imitating the behaviours of others (making pretend phone calls, cuddling pretend babies, preparing pretend cups of tea). They start to make friends, or have people they prefer to be with and those they wish to avoid. And they even learn a few key words (hello, goodbye, please, ta) to facilitate their entry into the social world. So far, so simple.

And then, after about eighteen-months, their level of social understanding mushrooms so quickly you struggle to recognise the increasingly complex creature that you share your home with.

My daughter is at this stage, and it is a daily dose of crazy.

For example, she has discovered hierarchy. A month ago, the dog was just another person around the house – albeit a hairy, smelly, waggy-tailed person. Now my daughter has realised that the dog is a non-human animal, and thus lower in status in the household than she is. And that means she is in charge, and can tell the dog to ‘shush!’ and ‘down!’ and ‘g’way!’ And woe betide if the dog doesn’t do as he’s told. It’s like having a pint-sized drill sergeant wandering around the lounge, demanding obedience at every turn. ‘Sir, yes, sir!’ cries the dog. Poor thing. She’ll be shaving his head next.

My daughter has also discovered the joys of storytelling, which is incredibly cute and incredibly confusing given her lack of spoken language. The other day I asked her what she did at her grandfather’s.

‘Izza da bed, bong da whoosh!’ she said, swinging her arms around and spinning on one foot.

‘You did what?’

‘Da bed. Dee bosh tan dum bin bed. Da whoosh da bed, an bed, sa bed, whoosh.’

‘What about the bed?’

‘Inda ban bed,’ she said, bewildered that I couldn’t understand. ‘Da bed, whoosh, bong ta bed. Whoosh. Da bed ta whoosh!’

Nope. Ten minutes of this. Something about a bed, that’s all I got.

A phone call to her grandfather established that what she’d been trying to explain was that she had been jumping up and down on the bed all afternoon. So obvious (not)!

Now, storytelling is a complex skill involving careful selection and omission – knowing what to include and what to leave out. My daughter will spend ages talking about something that lasted two seconds, and the rest of the day won’t even get a mention. She also has a weird predilection for the more morbid aspects of a toddler’s experience.

It doesn’t matter what she’s done, where she’s been or for how long – ask her what she did and she’ll tell you how she hurt herself. You went to the beach today? She’ll rub her eyes to show she got sand in them. What did you do at the park? She’ll point to a graze on her knee. Did you see your aunt? She’ll indicate where she banged her head on the table. You do not want to babysit my little girl – you make the slightest mistake, she’ll act it out and tell me all about it.

And that’s another complex social skill she’s developed lately – the concept of blame. After I put her to bed the other night, I came downstairs with the monitor and started to write. After a while, I started to hear giggling through the speakers – child and adult. This went on for around fifteen minutes until I popped upstairs to see what was happening. My wife had climbed into the little one’s cot and they were playing peekaboo. Nice.

I stood and watched for a moment, such a lovely scene of innocent joy – and then my daughter saw me.

The change was instantaneous. The smile vanished, her face fell and she pointed at my wife. ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ she shouted, as though saying, ‘It was her, daddy, it was her!’ She then gestured over the side of the cot. ‘Mummy, bed, da bed, mummy,’ she said, which I interpreted as, ‘I told her to get out, daddy, but she wouldn’t go, it’s her fault, I didn’t want to, she made me, it wasn’t me!’ Forgetting, of course, that I’d stood there and watched her, and she was in every way an active participant in the game.

Scary how quickly she’d sell out her mother. Scary that she’s already developed a concept of behaviour and consequence. Even scarier that she sees my wife as a playmate and me as the lawmaker who’ll tell them off for messing about after lights out. I guess that answers the question of how she sees the hierarchy between her parents.

For the next few nights, every time I walked past her room I could hear fake snoring as she pretended to be asleep. At 21-months! What a devious little sod. And what a socially-complex kid compared to a couple of months ago.

You have to watch out for these toddlers. One day they’re crying for a bottle of milk; the next, they’re planting evidence to frame others for their misdeeds. If your kid is approaching eighteen-months of age, watch out: the next few months are going to be interesting!