The fact that there is no parenting guidebook containing all the answers is a crying shame. One reason why that tome is a fantasy is because kids, in their wonderful if not frustrating way, simply refuse to read the script. Several episodes have reminded me of this recently, and they tend to involve: a) the expenditure of parental hopes and dreams, and b) the outlay of cash.
First up: our long-awaited family trip to Thailand. It had been nearly a year since we had taken Daniel abroad, not least because – and hardy, single-parent friends will scoff at me for this – he tends to wear the two of us out. So it was with a mixture of expectation and trepidation that I pondered our trip to Bangkok and, in our innocence, Pattaya Beach (nobody told us about its dodgy reputation).
As it happened, we needn’t have worried. Daniel is much steadier on his feet and has better depth perception nowadays. We didn’t need to hover over him nervously – a simple “Come away from the cliff, darling” will generally suffice. And he was easy to entertain. Indeed, to his parents’ relief, he was finally able to entertain himself, for instance, by investigating the nooks and crannies of our hotel room.
Therein lies the rub. He was so utterly absorbed by the most inconsequential features of our accommodation that nothing (short of feeding a baby elephant or a speedboat ride) could possibly impress him quite as much. Put him in a king-sized bathtub and he would play happily for hours, yet he was singularly wusuowei about splashing in the pool or munching on fresh seafood. It wasn’t that he completely failed to enjoy the things we wanted him to, but there’s no doubt that for him, the ultimate in entertainment was to sit inside the closet of our bungalow with a portable DVD player.
Christmas was a similar story. This was the first year he got the idea that Christmas equals presents, and we had fun playing up the concept. Our sense of anticipation – imagining him riding his first bike (with training wheels), or playing with his new racing car – was probably keener than his own. Rather inconveniently, when the big day arrived, we discovered that he basically wanted one thing: chocolate. No sooner would the wrapping come off one inedible pressie than he would pick up another and inquire, “Is this one chocolates?”
Admittedly, Dan did appreciate a machine gun that ayi gave him and his new bigger-and-better piano keyboard (one with a volume control, hinting at the self-interest underlying our generosity). Which is why, cruel father that I am, have seen fit to confiscate these items when he is especially obnoxious. Even here, though, he repudiates the rulebook. “Take the other ones, too,” he will volunteer dismissively, handing me his lesser guns and music boxes to hammer home my powerlessness.
The moral seems to be that children are sent to remind us that whatever our reasons for wanting them in the first place, they are their own people. I console myself with this thought, and the reflection that toddlers who refuse to do what mummy and daddy want them to must, surely, be good preparation for dealing with the teenagers they will eventually become.
When he’s not busy raising his son, Martin Adams is a freelance writer. During his three and a half years in Beijing, he has also been a warm-weather kung fu practitioner.