you make my heart sing

My children aren't wild.

They only look that way.

Chicken is the kind of kid who carries chaos in his lunch box. He's got at least nine hands, far too many "great ideas" and the iron will of a POW camp survivor when it comes to seeing those ideas come to fruition. Unless you want to lose a digit, I would not recommend coming between him and his pile of blocks when he wants to build a very tall tower. He does not give a damn how long you worked on dinner.


And Buster has now acquired both the taste for human food and the ability to lumber with surprising speed toward unattended platters of appetizers placed too close to the edge of the table.

He's basically a bear at Yellowstone.

If we have plans to hang out soon, consider yourself warned: batten down the china shop and tell the bull he can hang back - I'm rollin heavy with a 'roided up toddler spider monkey and a not-so-little octopus with genetically mutated superintelligence and an obsession with chewing on whatever you hold most dear.

I'm not blind. I see the looks on acquaintances' faces when Chicken realizes for the first time that his purpose in life has always been to empty the bag of brown rice on our friend's kitchen floor so his truck has something crunchy to drive through. (That look, if you're not familiar with it, is a hybrid of delight and embarrassment, discomfort and "I can't wait to post this on Facebook." It's a slightly more polite version of the face you make while watching a really bad American Idol audition.)

I wish I could say that it doesn't bother me to see how strangers, acquaintances, even some friends respond to the level of creative intensity that our children bring to such mundane tasks as "putting on shoes" or "eating a chicken nugget." It does, though.

I see people looking at my children who are just, in my opinion, acting like children.

I see people flipping through the narrow a-or-b characteristics that we apply to children, treating my kid like he's a lens at the optometrist's office. 1... or 2. Smart or dull, kind or selfish, sweet or violent, spunky or fearful, funny or quiet, courageous or shy, mellow or manic, polite or wild. Good or bad.

I am afraid they're assigning all the wrong words to my boys.

We're all scared that our children will be labeled, banished down a predetermined path based on one tiny, superficial sliver of the whole people they are.

OK, fine, he threw ONE tantrum over sharing the damn garbage truck at school - but he's not "AN ANGRY CHILD."

Yes, dammit, yes, she was the only one in his class who was afraid to touch the goat at the petting zoo, but we went back the next month and she touched his leg AND fed him those green goat pellets. She isn't "THAT NERVOUS GIRL."

One of my friends who has a similarly spirited little guy told me about an experience she had at a drop-in music class. The music teacher got frazzled and frustrated with her son's energy and refusal to sit quietly and play a drum to the tune of London Bridge like all the other kids. She complimented every kid in the class on his or her ability to sit quietly and follow instructions. "Oh, my, what well-behaved and polite musicians most of you are... Great job sitting nicely Abigail and Toby and Josie and Rachel. MOST of you are following directions like good boys and girls."

When my friend helped her son sit with his drum and participate in the activity, the teacher didn't say a word about him. It was like she'd already decided who the good kids were and who the bad one was.

By her definition, Chicken is a bad one. So is Buster. My kids don't sit quietly. Ever.

They have holler-offs at the dinner table and practice their front kicks in their car seats.

The same phenomenon dogs parents of quiet kids too. I have friends with shy kids who only get noticed and acknowledged by adults when they're being shy. The moments when they step out of their comfort zones and begin to shine? Somehow we miss those. We only see what confirms our shorthand.  We all choose to see only the behaviors that are consistent with who we've decided that child is, the generality of the child, his broadest self.

I'm extra sensitive to the danger of my kids being labeled "troublemakers" or "acting-outers" because yes, right now Chicken is at his most chaotic. He's almost 3, after all. Full of opinions and more than a little pushy.

But in the last two or three days I've seen some version of this exchange happen over and over again:

1. Chicken is playing with something.

2. Buster, who is mobile, handsy, and butt-crazy in love with everything that Chicken is and does, rolls up into Chicken's grill and grabs Chicken's toy.

3. Chicken growls, "No, THANK YOU," and roughly snatches his toy back from Buster.

4. Buster misses that subtle warning, giggles, and comes back for more.

5. Chicken raises his hand to push Buster down, away from his precious work.

6. Chicken stops.

7. He puts his hand down.

8. He growls, "No, THANK YOU."

People see him growling at his smiling, chubby, drooling baby brother. People see the snatched toy, the raised hand, the impulse of violence.

What you can't see in this picture is the fact that Buster grabbed and is licking the plastic cake that Chicken just spent 15 minutes stirring, shaking spices over, tasting, stirring, shaking more spices over, and stirring some more.
In short, he was asking for it.
I see his hand going down. I see him choosing to speak, however gruffly, rather than hit.

You guys.

Just because this isn't how we'd want an adult to behave doesn't mean it's not a HUGE, HUGE win for my physical toddler.

I'm so tempted right now to launch into this poetic description of how beautiful, tender, complex and kind my children are, how Chicken kisses Buster even when he thinks nobody is looking, how many books a day Chicken wants me to read to him, how much he loves to play hide and seek with Buster, how Buster bursts into a grin every time he hears Chicken's voice and takes off to find his big brother, how Chicken looks out the window and says "it's a beautiful day!" EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Even this day.

I'll save it, though, because if I've learned anything over the last 3 years of parenting, it's that people don't believe you when you say good things about your own kid. I'm their mother - it's my job to fall to my knees in awe when I see the beautiful embers that glow inside them, and not give a damn about a few soot stains.

I'm just going to say this, on behalf of parents of the wild things, to everyone who isn't a parent of a wild thing.

Boy oh boy, do we know how you feel: Holy shit, this kid is a wild card. We just bought this rug and not from IKEA either.

We remember what it was like when we first met the person our child is still becoming - how can we reign in this chaos, we thought. He's so wild. He scared us and pissed us off and made us feel like the stodgy neighbors, cranky retirees who mistrust the whippersnappers next door with their loud music and raucous barbecues.

We still freak out about the possibility that he may destroy priceless heirlooms or fancy stemware.

If, god forbid, we bring our children to a home where no children live, we will engage in SWAT-style maneuvers, evaluating and clearing each room as we say our hellos and shed our coats.

"Hi, Pam! You look great! How's work?"

Remote control on the coffee table? They'll never see THAT again. On top of the bookshelf it goes. 

Vase with fresh tulips - lovely, by the way - he spotted that the second we walked in. Just put it in the guest bathroom and close the door. 

Shit, they have those lever door handles. 

This is not going to be a relaxing evening.

Seriously, we have gotten texts from friends asking where we hid their Tiffany bowl. It was a wedding present. And the answer is "check your underwear drawer."

But he isn't that way because we've humored him.

He doesn't holler because we ignore him. He doesn't spin and jump to get attention. He doesn't sob because he's manipulative.

It took us awhile to understand that he hollers because he's bursting.
He spins and jumps because he's thrilled.
He sobs because he's heartbroken.

Look at our choices as parents and think, "I'd never."
Look at the way we hold our melting-down toddler and think, "why don't you."
But don't look at our child and think, "he's crazy. Difficult. Stubborn. Defiant. A brat. Disobedient."

We made a conscious choice to let him explore his world within parameters of safety and basic courtesy. If he violates safety and basic courtesy, then we step in. But if he's just being louder or messier than we would be, we let him be. We try to help him identify how he's feeling. We help him understand what's ok to throw (soft stuff) and when it's ok to splash (in the pool if nobody is close.) There's a method to our madness...

... we hope.

All we know is that it feels more right to let him bounce off the walls than to try to force him to sit still and be quiet in his own play room when there's no earthly reason he should have to.

That's not who he is.

And for every moment that he runs and jumps and falls and throws, there is another moment when he gives an unasked-for kiss or asks for one more story, pweese. No person on earth is one thing all the time, and certainly not a person who is still more unfinished than not.

Let's make a deal.

I'll continue to hide your wedding presents among your unmentionables.

In return, you can resist the urge to describe my kid in three words or less. You can remember that, depending on the day, quiet kids are loud and happy kids are sad and shy kids are chatty. And wild things, even the wildest ones, are sweet.


  1. Bravo, for this post on letting kids be the ever-changing opals they are. Identities are constantly shifting, but labels are sticky. And I believe they do damage--constricting the possibility space for our kids to grow and be. Almost every stranger immediately labels our twins: "Oh, she's the shy one, and she's the friendly one" or "she's the sweet one, and she's the mischief maker." Our common response is "right now maybe, but it changes every half hour." Do you have a regular response when people label your kids? I was thinking it'd be nice for my kids to grow up with their own go-to response, so they don't feel like they have to take on other people's labels. Or is labeling more implicit when it's with singletons? (maybe even more dangerous, if it's only in people's heads, its hard to model a response, to put your hand out and growl "No, THANK YOU" to labels).

    1. Lizzie, thank you so much for the inspiration! You planted the seed that became t post:

  2. Oh for... I really have to change the batteries in my mouse.

    Lizzie, thank you so much for the inspiration! You planted the seed that became this post: