This essay is a tribute to my littlest guy, Ian, for his fourth birthday. Each year he reaches new heights. I am watching him, with my eyes partly covered, to see what this year holds!
I have learned a few valuable lessons from my third child:
- Each child reveals new and unprecedented talents
- A three-year-old can develop his number sense by keeping track of his black eyes and how they came to be
- Baby proofing is a farce
My husband Rich and I had always hoped for a third child. We were both under the impression that it would be fun to be outnumbered, that we could finally succumb to utter chaos without having to try to make things seem neat and organized. As a teacher, I associated a four-person family with perfect squares, four quarters in a dollar, and other things that fit neatly into boxes. Five was less predictable, couldn’t be divided evenly and had an amorphous feel to it. When our daughter Eliza had just turned two, we found out we were having a third. We couldn’t wait to meet this baby.
Some parents of three children told me the third is easy; he or she just falls in line with the other two, and you barely notice you have another child. This may have been a tiny bit true in the newborn days when Ian was a seemingly easy baby, although our life was a bit upended in other ways. It logistically no longer made sense for me to teach for the time being, we were contemplating moving out of New York City after I had spent my entire adult life there, and we needed a bigger car to fit everyone. But the real excitement started when we moved out of the city and Ian became mobile.
I noticed there was something different about Ian as soon as he started to walk. He looked at staircases with a gaze of intrigue and delight rather than hesitation. Doors, locks and buckles were not barriers, but puzzles to unravel and obstacles to overcome. Kids are curious, but it was Ian’s ability to follow through on his curiosity that set him apart. At 18 months, his crib became a jungle gym rather than a box to contain him. On his first successful climb out, he fell, and thinking that would stop him from doing it again and I naively placed him back in his crib. Undeterred, he launched himself out immediately, and with a much safer dismount. We converted the crib to a toddler bed that night, invested a small fortune in Safety First baby-proofing products and hoped for the best.
For the first time, I understood that those leashes that some parents use might not be due to overprotective parenting, but out of necessity. Ian was, in fact, a runner. The larger suburban yard, multiple doors for escape and new climbing opportunities in fences and rocks meant he was constantly under my vigilant watch. I mean, I watched him as much as humanly possible with two other young children. One time, just when I realized he was not playing happily in the basement as he had been a moment before, my neighbor Andrea knocked on my door, returning a diaper-clad Ian. A few weeks later, he escaped mid-diaper change, right at school drop-off time. Our house was two doors down from the elementary school, and I ran out after him just as another friend caught him and redirected him back to our front steps. This time, he was wearing only a shirt. No diaper. We had a dare devil and an exhibitionist on our hands. The third kid just falls in line, eh?
Around the same time that Ian was soaring to new heights as a two-year-old, I read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillendbrand. Already knowing the basic story of a World War II hero and Olympic runner, Louie Zamperini, I was delighted in the first chapter when the author describes Louie as a child. He scaled out his second-story bedroom window, ran through the closing doors of a train, and was constantly escaping his mother’s grip. He was fast, quietly sneaky and seemed to lack the attachment that normal children show, opting instead for adventure and smiling back at his mom as he dashed away. This is Ian! I thought to myself. He could be a hero or a star athlete! Chapter 2: Louie becomes a juvenile delinquent well into his teen years and it is only by some lucky turn of events that he avoids serious trouble and makes something of his life. Hmmm. Time for more baby proofing, and maybe a star chart. But how do you teach a child to have a respect for danger?
The answer is, you can’t exactly teach it, but over time, we have developed a mutual respect. I’ve learned to worry less and to accept my children’s differences, acknowledging that his fearless demeanor and having older siblings means he will constantly push physical boundaries. My role is to keep him safe and give him wings, a tricky but not impossible combination. I ignore glances from some other moms at the playground when he attempts seemingly dangerous feats that I know he can handle. He is exceptionally tall for his age and can climb things intended for older children, but telling him to stop has no impact. He is a child who needs to learn from experience and actually reinacts his falls to improve his performance.
Unlike my older two children, who have a reasonable sense of danger and dislike injuries, Ian brushes off a skinned knee and actually smiled at himself in the mirror when he saw his first black eye. The other day, he proudly recounted his three black eyes, one from tearing around the house blindfolded and crashing into a wall, one from tripping on a superhero cape while walking down stairs, and one from going down a hill on a scooter. I had forgotten about the scooter.
Last spring, the two of us were out in the yard playing, with Ian dressed as Captain America. Our magnolia tree was in full bloom and it was a gorgeous day. I went in to get a snack, thinking he would be safe with the fence closed and no other apparent danger in site. When I returned, Ian was perched on top of our car, shield in hand. He had moved a chair next to the car in our driveway and climbed up the hood to the roof. When I begged him to come down, he said, “In a minute, Mom! There is a bad guy up here!”
If Ian can channel his imagination and energy into true courage and perseverance, maybe he will become a hero after all. In the meantime, I’ll be by his side, guiding him along and ready to catch him when he falls, holding an ice pack.