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Uncivilized child lives for the moment

| Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001

The shiny orange squid was doomed from the get-go.

I'd nabbed the stuffed toy from a clearance bin at the end of the aisle, hoping to keep my little girl occupied for the rest of the shopping trip.

As any teething 15-month-old would, she stuffed half the animal into her mouth for a good soaking. Extracting it from her jaws, she grabbed the hapless invertebrate by the tentacles and slammed its head into the crossbar of the shopping cart, then waved it above her head while shouting magblee opfloo , which must mean Fore! in whatever language she speaks, because the next thing she did was launch the squid into the potato chip display.

'Bad girl,' I said, breaking every parenting rule ever written since 1972. My daughter had moved to the next phase of her reign of supermarket terror, the deconstruction of the contents of my shopping cart. As I turned to select a box of dishwasher detergent, she reached behind her, grabbed a package of bagels and tossed them to the floor. By the time we'd arrived in dairy, our cart was heaped so full that many items were within reach of her long arms and sharp mind. Short of using a chain of twist-ties to lash her wrists to the handlebar, there was little I could do to contain her. For the rest of the trip, I selected incoming groceries with my left hand and shagged outgoing ones with my right. Her every toss was punctuated by bursts of consonants and saliva.

'That child is uncivilized,' I told my husband as we lugged plastic bags into the kitchen. Parents have been conditioned to call this behavior 'developmental' or 'undisciplined.' But the more precise word is wild. Unfettered. Feral, even.

There is something so primal about my daughter's way right now, I'm reminded of, well, primates. If she doesn't want to go into her crib, her legs become an extra set of arms as she coils herself around me, tightening her grip. When I lift her to pull her away, she walks her legs further up my torso and squeezes tighter, climbing up my body like a chimpanzee would.

When she wants my attention and I don't immediately give it, she strikes me with a clawed hand, dealing a swift scrape. Cups are tossed to the floor; unwanted food is swept over the edge of the high chair; unconstrained and thirsty, she's been known to drink from the dog's bowl. She is a walking, breathing ball of impulse and instinct.

My firm 'no' brings a belly laugh, her head thrown back in defiance. She is living in that slender, fleeting slice of time in which she can howl, scratch, snort and offend with impunity. It's an enviable spot, really. My little girl lives in the moment more than any person I've ever known, oblivious to time or space beyond the reach of her hands and her tongue. I think she's enjoying the kind of happiness New Age gurus teach. That primal joy has not been disciplined or domesticated out of her yet.

I'm reminded of a recent television documentary about conjoined baby sisters whose parents decided on a possibly life-threatening separation. On the day before the surgery, the infants' mother took the month-old twins into a bathtub with her. 'In case they didn't survive,' she said, 'I wanted them to experience the feeling of floating weightless in warm water.' At the time, that struck me as odd. No matter the outcome of the operation, the babies wouldn't remember their brief interlude in the water. After all, what does a baby really know • The same logic kept my friend from taking her children to Disney World until they were 'old enough to remember.'

I'm learning babies live in a rich world outside the grasp of memory, way beyond the confines of discipline and social propriety. The present moment is absolutely everything to them. I watch my little girl in the bathtub; she smacks at the water with wild abandon, soaking me. She jams a fistful of suds into her mouth, and then spits them out in a stream of gooey raspberries. Cackling, she splashes me again, then scratches her belly.

For now, those 4 inches of water with their frosting of soap bubbles are her whole world. For now, she feels like making a mess of it all. I look down at her and see a future. She looks up at me and flings more water at my face.

Soon enough, the world and I will descend on her with our rules, imposing order. But nobody's teaching her how to act just yet.

Civilization can wait. For the moment, she's my wild child, living in a happy, untamed spot.

Beth Dolinar is a former investigative reporter for WTAE-TV who now stays home to raise her son and daughter. She and her husband live in Ben Avon and Connecticut. She can be contacted at cootiej@aol.com .

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