How To Treat The Screaming Magenta Two-Year-Old

underparentingThe kid is in the playpen, also known as the crib, where I dumped him. The playpen is also known, officially, as a “playard,” sales-portmenteau-style for “play yard,” because somewhere between the time I was wearing diapers and the time I started changing diapers, “pen” and its overtones were dumped as being retrograde. Who would pen a precious child?

I guess I just did, and not (while we’re unpacking the assumptions behind the Graco Pack N Play Playard) for the sake of playing. I did it to shut him up. Now, in the silence, I am running a dishwasher with the lower rack more or less empty. Sorry, Earth Day. We were out of clean sippy cups, and I wasn’t in the mood to hand-wash them. I missed one or two last night in the evening dishwasher roundup, which would have been fine, except then we used an extra one to give him a water chaser after his bedtime slug of Motrin syrup, and again after I gave him his 4 a.m. Motrin along with the albuterol inhaler. “Delicious medicine!” he said after the bedtime dose, because he is chatty and good-humored nowadays, within limits, even as he closes in on being a two-year-old.

Being woken up at 4 a.m. out of fever sleep and having medicine shoved at him was not within those limits. Tears squirted out as he howled, which was good, because it meant he hadn’t dried out too much. When he was a little younger and sick, I used to use the soft spot on his skull as a water gauge-if it was sunken, we were behind on the Pedialyte.

The kid being sick is the normal state of affairs. Every 10 or 15 days, probably. This is one of the things that nobody tells you when you’re having a child, or that nobody tells you in a way that gets through. Like the fact that, for the mother, breast-feeding is essentially congruent with the CIA’s torture protocols (nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation) or that for several months, everyone’s clothing will get vomited on multiple times a day. The plan was for today have been a productive work day for me-a critically important one, even-but I had just finished one productive week, and you don’t get two of those in a row, so the telltale here-comes-trouble thick snot started flowing on Friday and kept going through the weekend.

Luckily, a sick child is not necessarily or exclusively a miserable child, and we had a pretty good morning for people who’d been awake and unhappy at 4 a.m.: watching subway trains and umbrellas and trucks out the window; eating French toast for breakfast; playing “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” for what iTunes says was the 55th time. Then came lunch. Cooking a second meal shortly after the first is not my strong suit. I put together some leftover chicken and leftover rice-when you’re feeding leftovers to a young child, you have to waste time reheating them and then cooling them down again-peeled an orange and cut up a few sections, got out a bowl of Jell-O, and poured some juice into the last clean sippy cup. He sat in his high chair and ate a few chunks of orange, and I went into the kitchen, three steps away, to get something for myself.

After about half a minute, he started screaming. Maybe he couldn’t get a big enough spoonful of rice to suit himself. Maybe he swallowed a chunk of orange wrong. There is a school of child-rearing they call “attachment parenting,” which consists of the worst, most backward mother-abuse, expanded to include the caring father: whenever your child is crying, it is for a reason, and the most important duty in your whole world is to figure out why and to solve the problem.

This is a cruel and stupid lie. How many adults, with the benefit of decades of experience, a full-grown brain, and possibly hundreds of hours of expensive therapy, really understand the reason every time they themselves are upset? But if you do not immediately know how to correctly soothe a despairing or enraged little semi-human, it is because you have not paid enough attention to its needs, and the parent-child bond has grown weak and defective. (Maybe you weaned the baby to formula and solid food at six months, when it started growing teeth, rather than letting it chew on the breast till it was three; maybe you put it in a separate room instead of cuddling it in your marital bed.) The attachment-parenting experts are quacks and bullies and monsters, and successful and prosperous ones, because everyone nowadays is afraid of bending the twig wrong and ruining the tree, and therefore inclined to believe that there must be an unambiguous way to bend the twig right.

Now the kid was magenta and the screams were deafening. I sat down beside him and asked a few questions-did he want some help with the rice? Did he want some juice?-and got tears and more screaming. He glared around through squinted eyes, and twin shining bubbles of snot inflated, side by side, one on each nostril.

I was not interested in the root cause of the problem. I hooked him out of the high chair and carried him off to his room and set him in the playpen. I gave him a blanket and left him there. I could say that I was trying to “extinguish” the tantrum, deliberately trying to create a neutral response, but I wasn’t, and neutral response is another ridiculous myth anyway. He was going to scream if he wanted to; I just didn’t want to have to share a room with it.

When I went in 10 minutes later to get a dirty sippy cup, he was asleep.