Yesterday I had the experience of dragging my son Jacob by the hand, while he sobbed loudly, all the way from our house and up the big hill to my daughter Hannah’s school. Because this is what life is like with a four-year-old, sometimes.It started with the Buzz Lightyear costume. Jacob really wanted to wear his Buzz Lightyear costume. But a Buzz Lightyear costume requires clothes to be worn underneath it, and he especially chose his long-sleeved, thermal cotton, blue and orange striped shirt and jeans. I expressed my concerns. The day was unseasonably warm. Too warm, really, for a long-sleeved thermal cotton shirt. Once you added the cheap polyester costume on top, it was more than too warm. I shrugged, though, because the chill of morning was still in the air, and the day loomed long ahead of me, with the promise of several wardrobe changes to come.
For once, though, my son kept the same outfit on all day. So, at 2:30pm when I could feel his skin under his heavy shirt and costume, sticky and sweaty, I insisted that Jacob switch his long-sleeved thermal cotton shirt out for a lighter, short-sleeved T-shirt. We had to head out into the hot sun and I laid down the law. In my head I reminded myself that I am the grown-up and I make the decisions, because I have better judgment. By the time my son’s shirt was changed, he was so upset. I wanted to calm him, but we had to leave the house to get my daughter on time. I hoped that I could help him get over the affront as we walked.
Jacob would not be calmed. He rebuffed my every effort. I carried his Buzz Lightyear hood and Hannah’s old kid-sized gardening gloves that he’s decided go with the costume, and asked if he wanted to put them on. In response he made an angry, high-pitched noise, letting me know that he was not happy. I picked him up and carried him until my breath was rasping and my legs complaining. He quieted a bit while I held him, but he didn’t stop. His rage was not so easily quelled as that. He wanted only one thing – his long-sleeved shirt – and every moment he was away from it he was unhappy.
As we headed out of our neighbourhood and got closer to the school, we were joined by the throngs of other parents. Some parents turned to stare, because that’s what you do when you hear a very loud noise. Not everyone did, though. Some parents kept their eyes fixed resolutely in front of them, which let me know that they themselves had been in this very spot. While their children pointed and asked questions, they pointedly ignored the scene unfolding in front of them.
While we waited for Hannah outside the school Jacob continued to express his displeasure. When my daughter finally appeared, my son gave a few more half-hearted sniffles, and then turned to me and insisted that we needed to return home right now. I suggested that we stay and play on the playground instead. I pointed out that nobody else could tell what kind of shirt he was wearing under his costume. I offered the hood and gloves again. This time, instead of crying, he was resolute. He set his jaw and repeated his demand. He had to go back home, where his inappropriately warm shirt waited. I relented.
I remember my daughter Hannah, at around the same age, being so caught up in the way she felt things should be. I remember trying to teach her the word flexibility. I delivered lectures about how she could choose to be happy or sad. How one thing not going to plan didn’t have to ruin her whole day. She didn’t understand, then. She was too young. And Jacob doesn’t understand, now.
Eventually, my son will turn five and six and seven and eight. He will outgrow his current rigidity. Wearing the wrong shirt under a costume will no longer be the end of his world. But today he’s still four. So I’m the one dragging the crying kid in the Buzz Lightyear costume up the hill to school, secretly thanking the parents who don’t turn and stare. They may not be looking at me, but I feel they’re walking with me, and I am not the only one.