Reasoning with a toddler (Letter 029)

Photo of Papa Zesser holding toddler Baobao while explaining something to her. Photo by Mama Raven, November 11, 2020.

And she hasn’t even started asking Why

Dear Baobao,

I know, it’s been ages since my last letter. I won’t offer you a pointless apology, but instead, will say only that my adventures as a “house husband” have been most revealing.

I have long paid lip-service to the work of home-makers, but (as is usually the case) only in actually doing the job have I come to a full appreciation of just how much god damned work is involved in raising a child, not to mention the related duties of putting together meals and even (not often enough, according to Mama) occasionally getting the floors mopped and vacuumed (not necessarily in that order).

To make a long story short, I start my day when you start to fuss in your crib in the room down the hall sometime between 07:00 and 08:00, and usually end it 12 or 13 hours later with an hour or hour and a half break in the afternoon when you go down for a nap. That’s the time, in theory, when I can write you letter, work on my personal blog, and try to be a publisher. Needless to say, as often as not those 60 to 90 minutes do not always get used as I would like.

Papa Zesser and Baobao resting on couch
Baobao and I take a moment to breathe on October 5, 2020.

Now, just to be clear: I am not complaining about my lot. Raising you is the most joyful work I’ve ever done, but it is also the most work I have ever done, and I would be lying if I pretended it wasn’t.

But the rewards …

* * *

Photo of toddler Baobao holding a milk cartoon in front of blue box and beer cases on wire shelf, November 22, 2020. Photo by Mama Raven.
Baobao holds a milk cartoon in front of our blue box and beer cases.

A few days week or more ago, you and I were in the kitchen when I realized I was reasoning with you. Talking to you as if you were an adult I wanted to explain something to.

In our kitchen, between the fridge and the stove, we have an open, four-level, wire storage shelf. The top shelf holds our toaster oven and some plants; the third, our microwave oven; the first, our blue box and Papa’s beer (much to Mama’s chagrin).

You have for a while forced us to make sure anything dangerous is placed at the far end of the blue box, but you have now grown tall enough to easily reach the second shelf, on which we keep a motley collection of (mostly) glass storage containers.

Photo of toddler Baobao applauding her stacking success. Photo by Mama Raven, September 30, 2020.
Appropos of nothing but a father’s pride, you are already a master stacker! This photo by Mama Raven on September 30, 2020.

Naturally, these have started to interest you. Equally naturally, we don’t want you playing with glass containers. Though they are tough and unlikely to shatter, they are also heavy and could easily hurt your foot if you dropped one — and shattering isn’t an impossibility.

And so it was that I found myself on my knees beside you, taking a glass container out of your hand, sliding it further back onto the shelf and explaining why I did so.

“Baobao, this shelf is to store things for Mama and Papa, it’s not for babies. You can hurt yourself if you drop or break one of them.”

Black and white photo of Papa Zesser wagging his finger at toddler Baobao. Photo by Mama Raven, November 11, 2020.
“If you don’t listen to my words, at least pay attention to my wagging finger!” Photo by Mama Raven, November 11, 2020.

Even as I spoke, I chuckled at myself — I know you understand a lot of words by now, and yet. And yet, you withdrew your hand and, for the moment at least, seemed content to return to pulling things out of our blue bin (yes, we’re careful about placement in there, too; glass and jagged cans right at the back!).

And once I’d got over my amusement at talking to you like a reasoning being, as well as my amazement that you seemed to react in kind, I thought some more and realized that I’ve been doing that quite a lot lately, and have done so for quite a while.

It shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve made the effort; long before you came into our lives, I have made it a point to speak to small children, not baby-talk at them.

It also shouldn’t surprise me, because though you can’t speak yet, your comprehension is (to me) really amazing. Nevermind individual words (eg, avocado, hamburger, perogies, banana, baby duck, mama duck, book, etc), just off the top of my head, here are only some of the phrases you clearly understand and respond to.

The audio in this video isn’t too good, but if you listen closely, you’ll notice that you did pay attention when I offered you more soup in exchange for letting go of the spoon. (And yes, Mama took the video, so it’s in portrait mode; one of our eternal arguments.)

  • “Please lean back so Papa can unbuckle you [from your high chair].”
  • “Please stay on your back, Baobao, so I can finish fastening your diaper.” (All right: sometimes I need to sing “Old MacDonald” to you as an incentive. You stopped responding to a video (for me; it worked longer for Mama) only a few days after I posted about it).
  • “Baobao, please don’t pinch Papa’s face. Pat, don’t pinch.”
  • “Do you want to practice walking?”
  • “Do you want to slide?”
Both a thrill and a heart-breaker. On November 7, 2020, Mama let you slide solo for the first time! I was visiting Grandpa Carl, but at least there was a video to document it!
  • “Please put the diaper back in the box.” (I doubt this will last, but you are in — and have been for a week or three — in a stage where you love to put things away when you are done with them, and to help, in general.

    You have also become very concerned that things are done right. If you spot an un-locked gate, or notice that we haven’t secured a cupboard door, or that we’ve left out our organic recycling can, you rush chattering and pointing at the offending item to let us know the problem needs to be fixed now. At 14 months, you have for some reason developed a strong sense of How Things Should Be Done.
  • “Can you bring Papa [a book/a specific book]?” and
  • What I think was your first, which came with me playing the voice of Mama Duck. “Where is my baby? Can you bring me my baby?” It was months ago now that you would go off in search of the baby rubber duck from among your toys and bring her to her bereft mother once you’d located the pitiable creature.

I could go on and on, but that is surely list enough.

Watching your mind develop has been perhaps the greatest joy so far I’ve had as a father (or maybe not. You’ve started to hug, which bloody melts me). A non-verbal example came during the first few times you dared to descend our staircase. There was no doubting the very careful deliberative processes going on in your mind as you worked out where and how to get one foot, then the other, down the long drop from one step to the next.

Grandpa Carl says that your concern for order is highly advanced, but I haven’t enough experience with kids your age to know whether he’s right. I do know that it impresses me every bit as much as it amuses me, maybe more.

And that I can’t wait to see where you go next.

Love always,

Papa Z — Ottawa, November 10 – November 17, 2020

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