Last Saturday I decided to take Athena to the library. This was a risk. Ann had taken Athena to the library in the past and it didn’t exactly go smoothly. Athena loves looking at books and reading books with us, but libraries are inconvenient for her in that they don’t allow running, yelling, or climbing, and these activities make up a considerable portion of her day.
Saturday morning had been a very book-centered morning. I wanted to capitalize on it, but I knew that Athena hates Newton’s First Law, and refutes it at every opportunity. Still it was worth a try. We walked over to the Mountain View library. By the way, this is what I love about where we live in Mountain View. We can walk to everything. Here’s a cool heatmap showing what I mean.
On the way to the library we had several conversations about going to the library and what we do at the library. I made some key points about being quiet at the library and not running in the library. She listened but seemed skeptical. When we got there, Athena wandered off toward teen non-fiction or something like that and pulled a book down. There were no pictures, just lots and lots of words. She looked at me accusingly, since I had told her about how many awesome books they had at the library – clearly this was not awesome.
Me: “We have to find the children’s section.”
Athena: “Children section?”
Me: “Let’s ask the librarian”
I’m no idiot, I could have found the children’s section on my own, and Athena’s Brownian motion through any enclosed space would have put her in the children’s section sooner or later anyway. She’s been very interested to ask questions for herself and pay for things at stores lately so I knew she would be excited to talk to the librarian for directions.
Following the directions we quickly heard the sounds of story time. Athena ran into the room, filled with kids and parents. I worried – we’re going to have to sit in the back, and Athena is going to want to run up front, or push her way through, or just lose interest. But she sat down and started listening. After a while I noticed there was a bunch of kids sitting up front and room for one more. She walked up and sat nicely. When the story reader asked the children to stand up, she stood up. When it was time to sing, she sang. Athena was having a great time.
When the story was over, we all clapped. I braced for the no-more-singing tantrum, but Athena waited patiently for the crowd to clear and asked the nice lady if she could play her guitar. Sure, said the lady, complimenting Athena’s curly hair and remarking on how closely she paid attention during the story. A little boy wandered up and wanted to play too – and Athena gave him a turn! Before I could even say “we have to take turns.”
Eventually the story reader had to leave too. I braced myself for the no-more-guitar tantrum, but none came. A librarian gathered up the books on display and Athena picked up two of them, followed the librarian, and put them away. Two boys went running by and Athena didn’t chase them, instead telling them in a quite but stern voice, “No running.”
It was happening. Athena was becoming The Perfect Child. If you are a parent, you know about this. When you are out somewhere, and your kid is misbehaving along with almost all of the other kids there, but there’s that one kid. The one that sits quietly at their parent’s side, the one that says please and thank you even though they are only 2, the one that your kid pushes for no reason and then doesn’t retaliate as all toddlers are pre-programmed to do. The longer you are there, the more you start to resent The Perfect Child. You think, “that kid’s being acting really nicely, I bet they’re just a really boring kid,” and then the The Perfect Child finds an appropriate moment to do a backflip or something and it just kills you.
The parents of The Perfect Child are almost embarrassed by their child’s perfect behavior. Where you are saying “I don’t know what’s come over her today, she normally doesn’t bite, or at least stops before she gets to bone,” they say things like “oh she’s being an angel today, but she can sure get miffed when violin practice is over!” “What the hell is miffed?” you think to yourself. “Wait, did she just say violin practice?” They are apologizing, and you start to feel like you should say something, but don’t they know how much you need to hate them and their perfect little kid?
Athena was becoming The Perfect Child – well-behaved, helpful, charming, disarmingly cute. But this was a problem. Not because I was worried about other parents feeling bad about how crappy their kids were acting, but because I started to lower my guard. I think you know what happens when I lower my guard. And so it happened. We were outside the library, getting ready to go. I was going to get Athena in the stroller but Athena wanted to show her bunny picture to the big bronze frog sculpture, and then she was playing so nicely with a six-year-old and her two-year-old sister, and then…
I let her get between me and the adjacent park. And in the park, in a spot I couldn’t see, was a mud puddle. And I think they had mulched recently because it smelled worse than normal mud. This was gourmet mud, organic heirloom fertilizer. And Athena, in mid sentence, took off like a shot and jumped in as hard as she could.
I walked her home, three quarters of a mile of mud dripping from pants and shoes. Athena was not the Perfect Child that day after all – perhaps a few hours of perfection was all she could muster. Maybe it’s all any 2-year-old can manage, and those other Perfect Children get “miffed after violin practice” by throwing themselves on the floor, screaming, toppling music stands and metronomes. Anyway, it was enough. We’ll go back to the library again, and next time I will maintain vigilance for stinky mud puddles, no matter what.