“How old is your son? Three? My son was reading by then! Learned his alphabet at age two.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a similar story forced on me in a public playground. The parents are perhaps well-meaning, proud of their own, but I have to wonder just how much of it is fiction. Because if your three-year-old can really read, shouldn’t he be over at the university enrolled in a philosophy course, instead of sitting under the swing set rubbing dog feces all over his face?
“Oh, your kid isn’t potty trained yet? My daughter was potty trained at six months.”
It’s tough to be a parent of a three year old who has not yet done anything extraordinary by society’s standards. My little Robert does not play violin, is not a chess grandmaster, and has not won the Ironman. He has not developed a popular iPhone app, nor has he made his first million.
What he can do with remarkable aptitude is crush snails he finds in the garden. He can stand on his father’s wheelbarrow and load a recycling machine with enough empty beer bottles to recoup ten euros in just a few minutes. He can urinate on his mother’s strawberries and remain silent when she eats them directly from the vine.
These achievements aren’t going to allow me to win a pissing match with most other parents. The need for one’s own child to be superior is surely as ancient and inevitable as prostitution. One either elects to participate in the game or remains silent. I’m still struggling to decide which route to take.
“My child attends the school where President Ilves’s child goes. Where does your child go?” She was 30-something, well dressed in that Eastern European way, which is to say every thread that covered her body had a designer label.
“What good fortune,” I was tempted to say, “that your child’s ass touches the same toilet ring as the president’s child.” Instead I settled for a “You must be so proud.” But my sarcasm went unnoticed.
“He’s also enrolled in a course to prepare him for state exams so that he can get into a very good grade school,” she continued.
I suppose I’m just beginning to get a taste of what’s in store as Robert grows older. Tiger moms will boast of their sons’ legitimate chances at solving Goldbach’s conjecture, while my boy struggles with multiplication tables. Tiger dads (do they call them that?) will live vicariously through their black belt sons kicking the crap out of mine.
If this is the case I’m going to have to hole up and avoid other parents, or else seek out the parents of underachievers. Are they the ones who encourage their children to play games where there are no winners or losers? Or push their kids to take up harmonic hobbies like choir singing and ballroom dancing? Or those who send their kids to camps where “Kumbaya” is still sung around the fire?
For dealing with tiger parents, I’ve begun to experiment with a kneejerk response about craniometrics, which I offer free of charge to you, fellow parent. You are welcome to help stuff a sock in the mouths of those who desperately need it.
My tactic is to pretend to seriously mull over the mother’s boast that her three-year-old has mastered all 24 Paganini Caprices or conquered the Seven Summits, all the time studying the shape of the child’s head. “You know,” I say, rubbing my chin, “psychopaths and criminals have smaller amygdalae and prefrontal cortices than other children. Have you had your child checked out?”
While she’s processing that, I add that the chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania (Ilves's alma mater, don’t forget to mention) can identify brain markers which allow people to progress to become rapists, arsonists, and ax murderers.
It generally only takes a few seconds for the mother to find a reason to relocate her child to the other side of the playground (“Oh, look, stagnant water!”), and you’ll never hear again about her ballerina daughter who’s destined for the Mariinsky.
While I’m polishing my phrenology approach, I’ve also started to prepare myself in case Robert does not get admitted to one of those elite schools with its own swimming pool, iPads for every kid, and an annual government-funded trip to the Louvre with dinner afterwards at Maxim’s.
I am trying to get comfortable with the fact that Robert’s school may be like one I toured a couple of year’s back in Mustamäe: paint flaking off the walls, windows that don’t close all the way, and no heliport on the roof for students arriving from Viimsi.
I’m starting to practice the recitation of truisms like “All I want is for my son to be happy,” and “I just want my son to be healthy.”
But of course I also desire that Robert is not a burden on society. I don’t want him to be homeless, and I don’t want him to be a pickpocket, arsonist, or real estate developer.
From what I’ve seen so far, I think he might become some kind of humanitarian. Robert exhibits a palpable concern for other children. He worries about an orphan mitten we pass in the park. “Daddy, boy lost a mitten,” he says. “Boy’s hand cold.” He doesn’t stop repeating it until I assure him that the boy’s mother knitted a new one. “Boy still sad, Daddy,” he remarks, until he notices the redheaded girl on the slipper slide, the one who’s on the list of Child Prodigies So Amazing They'll Ruin Your Day.
Robert runs toward her shouting her name. When they meet they hug, and start to play. Then the mother sees me and whisks the little genius away. “Why’d she go, Daddy?” Robert asks. “It was her mitten,” I say. “She went to get it.” And this fills him with joy, so much joy that he’d wet his pants if I didn’t distract him with a snail in the grass that needs a proper crushing.