One day, as I was extracting someone else’s toy from my son’s hand, another mother leaned over and said, “If Karl Marx had ever spent time on a playground, he would have know that communism would never have worked.” Her comment is the most compelling one that I’ve heard since joining playground society. Not that our conversation is limited to diapers and binkies, but it is rare that I come across another mother who is ready to uncover the playground’s far-reaching political themes.
Toddler politics, as I see it in my home and elsewhere, is the most brutal and tyrannical system that I, as the mother of two adorable tyrants, have ever known. Young children, in their sweet and irreproachable way, care nothing about their community or fellow man. They are wired for one thing, self-gratification—the satisfaction of their every physical and emotional need. Imagine a playground full of Terminators, little robots programmed to fight to the death in order to complete their mission. Then imagine what happens when they don’t get what they want. For my kids, it looks like a convulsive state—their bodies are contorted in pain, their screams expressing total despair. The experts define this stage of development as separation. Parents know it as the terrible twos, a famous misnomer as it lasts well beyond that. It occurs when the child learns that he is not the entire universe, that his needs and desires are separate from everyone else’s. It is an excruciating process that puts the child at odds with everyone, particularly his mother, who gets in his way. It is the task of the parent to weather the storm and show the child how to survive these feelings, show him that his world will not fall apart.
I try to remember this whenever one of my three-and-a-half-year-old twins rages out of control on a busy city street. I can either hold my ground, as painful as it is, and allow him to hit the wall and learn to cope with his feelings of disappointment, or I can give him that second oversized cookie. Although it is my responsibility to set limits for my children and to model ways for them to express their fury when they meet those limits, that toughness does not come easily. Of course, when they hit me or throw themselves on the ground I have no problem showing them, with my own rage, that such behavior is inappropriate. But sometimes the line is not so clear. And as a person who avoids confrontation, who wants to run and disappear when anyone raises their voice, I struggle with this. Sometimes when my sons are battling it out, screaming at each other in that unbridled way that it seems like only children can, I wonder whether I should intervene.
The other day, for example, I heard a fight brewing in the other room. Ike didn’t like the way Charlie had placed the dinosaur on their “Jurassic” playmat and the argument had escalated to Exorcist-like screams. Charlie was sobbing, “Ike won’t let me put the dinosaur…” I came into the room and said, “Ike, don’t yell at your brother, we don’t yell in this house…Charlie can play how he wants.” I heard my words and I wasn’t sure if I bought them. Why can’t he yell? Yelling isn’t bad. It’s better than hitting—I’m always telling them to use their words, not their fists. Yet, on the other hand, he’s got to learn how to talk to people, or no one will be his friend. I began to lose focus—my instincts were buried in the pages of ten different parenting books. Then I looked over and they were easily back to their game. I was relieved, but worried that they sensed my uncertainty. I was ready to call my husband and suggest that we find someone else to raise our children; then I heard them talking to each other: “Ike, don’t yell at me, you make me sad, say you’re sorry.” And I heard Ike say, “Sorry, Charlie.” I know I gave them those words, the language of emotion, and that we are all learning how to use them.
Before I became a mother, I knew little about children. I didn’t know how to change a diaper. I didn’t know that infants cry for no reason or that, as mammals, they need to suck. I thought children who had tantrums were spoiled, and that the ones who bit, hit, and pushed were bad. I thought that my kids would be easygoing because I was, and that the only way I could spoil them would be to buy them too many toys. I learned, of course, that I was very wrong. That kids, particularly boys like mine, don’t work well with flexibility. That I always need a plan—there is no standing on a corner, “hanging out” trying to decide what to do. My kids sense weakness. At any sign of ambivalence, they do everything in their power to confront me and force me to draw the line. If I am not sure what they should wear, they will pull off every shirt I put on them. If I don’t know what to make for dinner, they will scream for ice cream, cereal, and cake. When they were 18 months old, I would hear them shouting for broccoli from inside their cribs. Even with their limited vocabulary, they understood the potency of this one word. Were they really hungry? Should I have taken them out and given them that green vegetable every mother dreams of seeing her children eat? As adorable and smart as they were, as impressed as I was that they were able to play me at such a young age, I knew I couldn’t give in. Some wise person, who may or may not have been talking about parenting, said, “Never get into a battle that you are not going to win.” If they got out of bed, I knew that one was lost.
Parenting is as much about war as it is about love. My sons fight me so they can learn that no matter how much rage they throw at me, no matter how ugly they get, I will not leave them. By going through the battle, and forcing myself to hold my ground, I prove that I am a separate individual who is not just there to satisfy their every need; all the tantrums in the world can’t change that. Eventually if all goes well, they will stop the screaming and begin to search inside for what they have, not outside for what they need.
What does this have to do with Marx and the woman in the playground. Although he was the father of seven, Marx said nothing about parenting, nor about how young children’s inability to share fit into his vision of a communist society—a place where people are not driven by material self-gratification and don’t draw blood in a fight over the last gummy bear. If he had walked into the playground and taken what he saw there at face value, he might have ended his work right there. But in my thinking, there is something in Marx’s writing about man’s ongoing struggle, about conflict as the catalyst for change, that resonates in my daily life with my children. The moment of transcendence occurs after we clash, after I have dragged my kicking and screaming son out of the grocery store. It happens when we have both calmed down, when we can look each other right in the eye and I hold him and he melts right into my arms. Each time we go through this, my children and I learn that we can recover from such rage, and that the disappointments life will inevitably bring will not destroy us. We discover, in that moment, after battling with each other over what we want, that what we need is each other. It is this conflict that gives us the opportunity to feel compassion, empathy, and love for one another.
This is surely a more sentimental reading of Marx than he or his followers would care for, but I like to imagine that Marx, a man who appreciated the conflict we inherit as human beings—the force that drives us to become better people, was also a tired parent like me, who just dreamed of finding peace.
Jill Clateman is a writer living in Brooklyn Heights.