How my child was found wanting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 1:29pm

"I want it!" My 2½-year-old son wailed again and again. He had worked himself up into a tantrum, and was unable to stop.

His mum and I had just returned from two weeks overseas, and this was his third "I want it" explosion in less than 24 hours. I was not impressed with this new behavioural trait. This particular episode was triggered by an ice cream vendor who, with a strategy that would make Sun Tzu proud, parked his van where every family must pass on their way to buy lunch. As soon as my son saw the vendor, he started.

"I want it!" My perfectly reasonable suggestion that we wait until after lunch was rebuffed. Communication deteriorated to those three words, with the occasional variation such as "I want ice cream!"

While I waited for him to wind down to the point where a distraction might be effective, I stared out over a nearly deserted Stanley Bay. I had plenty of time (not quiet time, mind you) to wonder where had this come from.

The answer was obvious. His grandparents, who looked after him for two weeks, did things differently. But much more disturbing questions entered my head, the first being: "Is my son being raised the way I think he should be?" We all have ideas about how we want our children raised. Values we would like instilled, skills we'd like them to acquire, ways we want them to act, things we want them to do, to learn, and say (or more accurately, not say).

That others may not share the same ideas can cause problems. One of the most amazing things, to me, about children is their ability to learn. They learn from everything around them. Everything we see, hear, and feel makes a much bigger impression on my son than, sadly, it does on me these days.

Everyone he encounters in his life makes an impression on him to some extent. His parents, grandparents, our helper, our relatives, our friends, his friends, his teachers, the shopkeeper, the taxi driver, and the woman in the street who just has to stop and talk to him. He learns things from them all, some of which I'm not happy about.

Some are unimportant, like the time he came home saying "Oh my gosh!", one of the world's most terrible sayings. But other things are more important. For example, being scared of, and viciously attacking, ants and insects the instant he sees them. His friends do that, but it is not the way we think he should be raised. A conversation on fearing and killing things that are different put a stop to that very quickly.

Getting into full tantrum mode when you don't get an ice cream falls somewhere in the middle of the two. Who wants their kid to grow up to be the kind of person who just says, "I want it" and expects to get it? This behaviour is easy to pick up, but very hard to change.

Looking back now on my own childhood, I realise I was not exactly the child my parents intended to raise. But I think I turned out fine.

I have resigned myself to the fact that there's no way I can control my son or his environment, and therefore his growth as a person. This, I realise, is probably a blessing as the wider his experiences, the more opportunities he has to learn and grow into his own person.

With "I want it!" turning into an entreaty rather than a mindless command, and his grandparents approaching, I felt the time was right for a distraction. I picked him up and pointed out a little crab scuttling around on the rocks below. That did the trick.

When his grandparents arrived soon after, he excitedly pointed out the crab to them. He was the clichéd picture of the perfect grandchild.

"Is my son being raised the way I think he should be?" Perhaps this is not the right question. I should be asking, "Is he growing up to be a good person?" The answer, even allowing for the tantrums, is yes. That is good, because it's really what I want.

After lunch, we all enjoyed an ice cream together.

At the time I did not allow myself to dwell on the more disquieting question that was still lurking in the back of my mind: "Who is actually raising my son?" But that's another story.

Anthony Burling is a stay-at-home father and accountant