Like most new parents, in five years of fatherhood I've become acquainted with many previously unfamiliar parenting concepts including, but not limited to, proper car seat installation, Wiggles Mania, "stroller envy" and pretending to make a big deal when someone else uses a toilet.
Another concept I've become familiar with is the notion of "developmental milestones." This is the term psychologists use for those childhood breakthroughs that overjoyed parents race for the camcorder to get on tape, such as when a child says "Mama" for the first time, learns to use a cup, takes those first tentative steps, finally moves out of the house at age 32, etc.
By contrast, when I was growing up, the primary developmental concept we had was called "going through a phase." The "phases" in question typically involved some sort of childhood behavior that the parents couldn't wait to end, such as the "throws tantrums in the supermarket aisles" phase, the "cram every small object he finds up his nose" phase and the "keeps hot wiring the neighbors' cars" phase. What I loved about the "He's just going through a phase" approach to parenting was that it could be used to explain away virtually any obnoxious, antisocial or downright illegal behavior. Suffice it to say that some of the kids I grew up with were able to smoothly transition from "going through a phase" during childhood into "doing a stretch of time" as adults.
Currently our household's developmental focus is on our 19-month-old son, Rafferty. His latest discovery is the word "hot," which he now uses with the irritating frequency of a recently accepted Mensa member steering the conversation toward the topic of IQ. Rafferty's obsession with heat likely stems from an incident when my wife or I may have given him a slice of pizza that was, in fact, a little too hot, and ever since he acts highly suspicious whenever we hand him anything.
So now, whether it's a banana, a popsicle, the front door, Grandma - whatever comes near is automatically met with a wary, "Hot? Hot?" These days my wife and I spend much of our time debating with him about whether various items are hot or not. I suspect this is what it's like hanging out with Paris Hilton.
Then again, I could just be misinterpreting his meaning, and he's merely concerned that everything in our home is stolen. The next time he asks whether his yogurt is "hot," maybe I'll be able to calm him down by showing him the supermarket.
Rafferty's other big development is a love of books. Until recently he routinely ignored our efforts to read to him, a circumstance that caused my wife no end of worry. She lives in constant fear that he will grow up to be a semi-literate lummox - the kind of guy who wears his baseball cap backwards, regularly demands high fives and refers to everyone, whether friends, coworkers, teachers, parents or the Pope, as "Bro."
At one point I tried to put her fears to rest. "You know," I told her, "I wasn't read to all that much as a kid, and look how I turned out."
For some reason she found this less than reassuring.
Then again, my limited exposure to books during my early years can be directly attributed to my mother, who never exhibited much interest in reading children's books to my sister and me. When I mentioned this to Mom during a recent visit, however, she took offense.
"What are talking about?" she asked, indignant. "I did read to you kids. I read you that Goodnight Moon book. Once."
Frankly, Mom may have had the right idea. Since Rafferty's awakening to the world of books, my wife's concern has turned to exasperation. The problem, as many parents of small children will recognize, is that he likes to have the same books read to him over and over again. As an adult, reading a book more than once can be an enriching exploration into the wonders of great literature. By contrast, most books directed at a 19-month-old audience are not exactly James Joyce, depth-wise. That's why no one ever says, "You know, I've read 'Pat The Bunny' dozens of times and each time I get something new out of it."
And so, while Rafferty's calls of "More, more" are adorable following the first few times through "The Little Engine That Could," after about 30 readings, I'm often tempted to hurl the book out the window and tell him, "Oh look, the little engine could fly too!"
I don't, of course. That would be bad parenting. So instead, after multiple readings of the same book, I instead encourage his new interest with a little hip lingo. "Wow," I'll say. "this book is really hot." Why he never wants to keep reading after that remains a mystery.