Why Does He Act This Way?

Author: Brendan O’Shaughnessy ’93

So there I am, in the parking lot of Lowe’s hardware superstore, cross-country skiing back and forth along a 100-yard grass strip on the edge of the lot and the brink of insanity. I’m wearing my wife’s superthin maxipads wrapped around both heels in a vain attempt to prevent the blisters my ski boots have given me for the last 10 years. I’m working up a sweat and drawing some funny stares from people heading in to buy power tools or track lighting.

My wife says I’m stubborn. I think she should get the maximum-strength pads when I feel my right heel rubbing raw. But I decide it’s better not to tender this advice.

Really, there’s a simple explanation as to how I got to that point. I put on my ski gear to go for some exercise before work in a large park nearby, but then I figured I’d better get my car’s oil changed. I wouldn’t have time over the weekend because we had a busy schedule planned for our three young kids. The half-hour wait at Car-X stretched into an hour. The strip of grass at the Lowe’s across the street looked like the only opportunity to get a workout and still accomplish a household task I could check off for my wife.

All right, maybe I am a little stubborn. My wife says I passed that trait on to our 3-year-old boy. When he’s not acting too hot, she says things like “Your son won’t eat anything but string cheese” or “Your son won’t put any clothes on.” When he says something cute, he becomes our son again. If it’s really cute—like when he couldn’t sleep and she snuggled next to him and he said “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” and closed his eyes—then he’s her son.

Most of the time, he’s my son. Wanting their way is what 3-year-olds do. We recently took him and his older sister to Disney World for a day. It was eight hours of ping-ponging between highs of delighted wonder and lows of screaming fights over who gets to jump in the stroller first. After we waited 45 minutes in line to hear these little puppets in “It’s a Small World” sing their namesake song at an alarming pitch for the whole ride, our son walked out and announced that he wanted to do it again. Frankly, I spent the second half of the ride imagining the place at night, when all the little dolls turn into international Chuckies and the song keeps speeding up until it’s a cannibalistic war chant. He bawled when I declined.

Logic and discipline don’t mean much to a 3-year-old at Disney World. My wife gave me the look that says “This comes from your side of the gene pool, so you deal with it.” Of course, she’s right. I know the look. She gives it to me when she says I need to buy a new pair of cross-country ski boots so she no longer has to watch me try special socks, moleskin or duct tape—only to come home with another blister on my heel.

I know the look from when we toilet trained our son. She had directed our daughter brilliantly two years before, accomplishing the feat with one bag of M&M’s in a single day. Our son wanted no part of that game, despite sharing his sister’s sweet tooth. He and I faced off in a duel of wills each weekend for months on end. It’s pretty clear who’s winning the battle when you’re trying to figure out how to clean up stains in the carpet. I had visions of him entering fourth grade with an extra diaper in his backpack.

I was determined to get him to pee into the portable plastic seat. He was intent on running half-naked through the house, flying away from me like Buzz Lightyear whenever the potty appeared. He got that same crease between the eyes that I get when I’m worried. He had no interest in joining the big-boy club.

Children teach their parents many things. The joy in finding a good throwing rock. How to give completely after years of taking your parents for granted.

Children teach their parents many things. The joy in finding a good throwing rock. How to give completely after years of taking your parents for granted. How fun it is to chase bubbles in the backyard. How to prevent a meltdown at the supermarket when both toddlers want to push the grocery cart. How to appreciate your wife’s ability to answer the phone, change a diaper and plan a tutoring lesson at the same time.

And which side of the family children take after.

Getting our son to sit on the potty caused many a meltdown. He dug in his heels and refused to try. Why sit around when there’s so much to do? Then, in the midst of another fit of tears, he accidentally let it rip while perched on the plastic throne. He had a look of surprise on his face, but he at last made the connection with getting a handful of M&M’s. A few months, tears, threats and bribes finally paid off. It wasn’t the end of all accidents, but the mental barrier had been cleared.

Maybe the opposite of stubborn isn’t flexibility or tolerance for change. Maybe it’s patience. My wife just smiled when the new ski boots I’d ordered online showed up at the front door.

Brendan O’Shaughnessy is a journalist and freelance writer who lives in Indianapolis. His stories have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Parent and The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader. He is seeking a literary agent for his first novel, Trip.