In the face of it, a twenty-two month old toddler and a sixty-two year old man are separated by vast canyons, chasms and abysses of experiences, knowledge, accumulated cobwebs, barnacles, creaking bones and settled ways on one side and thousands of empty unwritten pages yet to be filled, on the other.
That’s what you would have thought and I assumed when Igor, my two-year-old grandson, and I– just the two of us –went for the weekend to my beach cottage for the first time.
My assumptions were in error.
In the first place, this luminous, intense, alert, go-getter, jumping-jack, bouncing magic-ball boy was not the helpless one.
His smile, protuberant “cute” forehead, smiling eyes, strategically placed utterances, occasional spontaneous, unsolicited hugs, given with enthusiasm and alacrity, all had mobilized me fully.
I was now held captive. My affection and parental altruism were readily available. I wanted to do things for him, to assist, to protect, to inform, to feed, to guide, to please and serve him. Any ideas to escape, disengage or avoid him became unthinkable.
He then proceeded to dictate the terms of endearment and my joyful servitude for the entire weekend.
And what a weekend that was!
He first touchingly handled the absence of his mother and the resulting uneasiness; he would from time to time pause and say “Mommy gone to church”. A whiff of sadness and longing was in his sweet voice. Then while I reassuringly hugged him, he would pull away and once more launch into exploration of the surrounding area of the lovely barrier island near Southport, NC, where my place is located.
In rapid succession he inspected a dead bee, a scurrying lizard, a big black ant, and a green caterpillar. Then pointing to something, he cried, “What’s that?”. “A slug”, I answered. “A slug!”, he shouted with enthusiasm akin to a gold prospector’s announcing yet a new discovery, as he was squatting and fearlessly handling the curling, slippery animal. He became intensely curious. “Hurts!” he added thoughtfully, watching its writhing movements. I was pulled into the excitement. “It’s a gastropod,” I said, remembering its funny name (Gr. for an animal using its own belly as legs). Stretching its antennae, it would spread and curl as it moved away from our scrutiny. My creaking bones no longer creaking, my eyes were fully open, and my energy and enthusiasm readily matched Igor’s. The gladness and mirth were now shared. “Oh, oh!” he cried out. He grabbed a small stick and ushered an escaping, blue crab from its trap into the shallow water.
Later that day at the ocean, Igor shouted, “Look! Mommy pelicans!”, apparently impressed by their size. He wildly gesticulated up at the passing V-shaped formation of the somewhat prehistoric looking birds skimming the shimmering sea of that September morning.
He suddenly turned to me and ran. “I want thalassa! Thalassa!” (Gr. for sea), mixing words up in his bilingual effort. He really wanted to go swimming. He tightly clung to my swimsuit with one hand and splashed himself with the other shouting happily, proclaiming his joy to the heavens while mastering his new skill.
On our way for a seafood dinner, he now had a pensive look, silently listening to my ‘ happy chatter. “Stop it!” he suddenly cried out loud. He clearly showed annoyance for being distracted from his private moment. I recoiled, a little embarrassed for failing to heed his need for wanting to be alone with himself for a while. But during the late afternoon as an enormous, reddish sun lingered in the western sky before its final dip, Igor and I sat side by side on the shore’s moist sand. We tunneled our hands underneath the sand until they met. “Pappou!” he exclaimed with affection. “Igor! My little grandson!” I replied with a felt tenderness of my own, our bonding now complete.
At bedtime when the adventures of the day were behind us, Igor, on his own volition, laid next to me on the unfamiliar, oversized bed. “Mommy gone to church,” he whimpered again. He promptly grabbed my hand, placing it once more on his leg. Shortly thereafter he was soundly asleep. It had been a long day.
Myself wide awake, I was now free to contemplate and sort out things my grandson had taught me throughout the weekend. First, it was the matter of his temperament, that somewhat ambiguous gathering of inborn traits which “determine the how of behavior”, as A. Thomas and S. Chess, the well-known child researchers in this woefully neglected field, define.
As I was observing Igor in wonder, I realized as I have many times before in my professional life, that this child, like all children, is “temperamentally prearranged” and to a greater extent than we ever allowed ourselves to acknowledge. In other words, he has inborn propensities and traits which will tend to guide him in some way to eventually be the very person he wants to be.
Within the framework and parameters and limits of his life, opportunities and overall circumstances, he will in his own innate way somehow handle, even choose the events, experiences, adversities, and hardships which will eventually shape his own personality. Just like Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Amadeus Mozart, and the kid next door have done. Thus, by accepting the existence of a constant mutual interplay between inborn traits, as well as events and circumstances in shaping one’s personality, the “either-or” argument of the so-called “nature-versus-nurture” becomes really an inane statement without merit.
There will be developmental milestones, phases if you please, but ones that this beloved boy in his own way will face and handle and in that memorable weekend already had been doing in his own way, Igor’s way; just like my son handled his in his own way before Igor, and his father (that’s me) before him.
And that is how it is and always has been and every mother knows it and every mother’s mother before her. And we psychiatrists know about it, but we are often likely to somewhat ignore, perhaps by being busy collecting data and applying it “Procrustes” fashion to fit the lopsided and therefore erroneous premise that every child’s and eventually adult’s emotional and personality make-up, as well as emotional disturbances, are to be traced exclusively to environmental influences and circumstances, especially due to a mother’s supposedly faulty ways and attitudes towards her child.
This implied premise of “Mama did it!” culminated to a ludicrous hypothesis in the Sixties— now blissfully defunct –of the supposed existence of a schizophrenogenic mother directly responsible for her schizophrenic child’s illness. Thus, this premise perhaps unintentionally imparts cruelly a heavy amount of guilt and bewilderment to an already burdened mother with grief for her child’s condition.
Igor, my grandson, was busy throughout the weekend, proclaiming the error over the heads of those wise ones.
And there was more!
His temperament displayed for the entire weekend, clearly discernable even at this early age, was a distinct one (just one of many in existence not yet clearly delineated).
His intensity in interacting with things, events and people, his insatiable desire to explore everything around him, his enthusiasm, his eagerness to handle novelty, his ability to take impressions under advisement as it were, his unfearing ways to venture far afield, while gregarious at the same time, having a touch of aloofness, a kind of “being-his-own-person”, all pointed to a particular temperamental type which for want of a better name can be described as a “pathfinder”, a discoverer.
At the other end of temperaments’ spectrum, they are the warm, comfortably social, accommodating, “obedient”, acquiescent children who behave as though he or she may be waiting for instructions, accepting reality as given, eager to fit in and contribute to the stability and status quo of a social group. They, for want of a better name, can be called perhaps the “sentinels” and the keepers of the hearth.
Both of these two distinct temperamental types, with the existence of perhaps many subtypes, are worthy contributors to the welfare of the tribe, society or group. The pathfinders contribute innovativeness and novelty, while the sentinels contribute stability, continuity, order, and tradition.
The phenomena of existing different temperament genotypes poses daunting challenges for educators and pedagogues alike, such as the appropriate environment and educational milieux for each genotype, i.e. a “goodness to fit”, to use again a term of A. Thomas and S. Chess, deliberately created to benefit each child’s temperament type. Hopefully, such sophistication will, with much further study, take place in the future.
And then yet, another discovery!
Once more it dawned on me as in the past with other children, as my grandson burst into laughter, perhaps proclaiming his joy for sharing with me “the gladness of the scene”.
And it was this: his repertoire for conveying emotional messages and giving his roll call, so to speak, of his presence to the world. The so-called “non-verbal emotional language” as it is in all children at this early age, fully developed and in place.
Igor knew how to convey gladness, surprise, dislike, affection, dysphoria, anger, curiosity, irritation, fear, amusement, astonishment, and yes, humor! —as he several times was hiding behind a post imparting anxiety on me as to his whereabouts, only to reveal himself laughingly.
Furthermore, his ability to “read” and comprehend the very some range of feeling from me and others was also fully developed as he was quick to gauge and respond according to my tension, warmth, mirth or pensiveness.
As my face portrayed this comprehension, the man-inside-the-child-yet-to-unfold was all along peering at me through Igor’s little laughing eyes. It was as if he was saying,”You got it just right, Pappou, just right!”
It has been a long weekend and as a poet has said, “full of adventures, full of wonders” for both of us. The following morning: “We will be back together soon, Igor,” I said while he hugged me spontaneously after finishing his frozen yogurt from the local fast food fare.
“The child is the father of man, indeed.” I murmured as we started our return trip home.