water test
1 September 1999
We’ve just had a test of our parenting style. Over the most unexpected of events -- bath time.

For the past I don’t know how many months, baths have been pure pleasure. Damian comes into the bathroom while the tub fills to see the water running, to watch as the cat tries to capture the water in his paws. Then he gets busy carting the tub toys one by one from their nest in a drawer to the tub's ceramic rim, then pushes them in, watching as they drop with a satisfying splash.

When the water is high enough, he leans over into the tub so he can trail his hands in the warm, bluish water with that sharp chlorine smell (gotta love LA) and give his mom a heart attack as I imagine unintentional headfirst dives into the suffocating water, the head-crackingly hard ceramic.

But he keeps his balance, standing on tippy toe, pushing toy after toy in the tub until the water is high enough, the faucet shut and the shirt pulled over his head -- he holds out first one arm, then the other -- and the shorts pulled down -- he steps out of it, first one foot, then the other -- and finally the diaper slipped off and the naked boy lifted up, over and in.

A naked boy who bobs for colored rings, who stands dripping wet to investigate the goofy green hippo faucet cover. Who puts his hand inside the hippo’s mouth with a grin and sits back down into warm, soothing water. Who fits one half of a frog cup inside another, then lets them float away. Who pulls on the mat under his butt, enjoying the <pop> as the suction gives way. Who splashes and stirs the water, swirling with his hands and making tsunamis with his strong kicks.

In other words, a one year old who thoroughly enjoys the bath.

Until Thursday night. It was Dan’s turn to give Damian a bath, so all I really know is that Damian started wailing after he was soaped up. Usually if he gets upset in the bath it's because he swallowed water -- never mind that he just took one of his frog halves and brought it to his lips and drank from it -- he’s too young to completely grasp cause and effect. Sometimes, though, he just doesn’t feel like being washed. Like Thursday. So Dan quickly rinsed him off, tried to convince him it was really okay in the tub. This works sometimes. You can distract him with <splash splash> "see how much fun it is in here?" and he’ll sit right back down and carry on where he left off.

Sometimes it doesn’t work, and then bath’s over until tomorrow.

There’s always tomorrow, right?

Friday, then. My turn. I ran the bath, Damian busied himself filling it with toys. I pulled a few toys out, balanced them on the edge for his little hands to gleefully push back in. Tub’s filled. Naked boy went in.

Immediate heartbreaking wails.

I’m not talking little fussy mewls and I’m not talking angry, screw up your face, hate the world cries. I’m talking anguish, fear, desolation.

I hauled him right out. Soothed him against my chest, not caring that my shirt was immediately soaked. He gradually quieted to heaving whimpers.

What to do?

Dan was in the bathroom too by this point. Time for a quick parental powwow. The temptation was so strong to call it a tantrum and stick Damian back in the tub, like it or lump it. Get used to it, kid, it’s only water. But. It’s just not our style. Our whole philosophy can be summed up in one phrase: "respect your child as a person unto himself." In other words, don’t force him to do something he hates unless absolutely necessary (this falls under the rubric: "yes, I love you and that is why."). Don’t do something to him just because you’re bigger and it’s more convenient that way. Listen to his needs.

Okay, we’re listening.

First thing, I get in the tub myself, sit there in the now tepid water, molded plastic animals floating around me, trying to hold a once more crying Damian. Trying to nurse him, trying to soothe him. No part of his skin in the water, not even his toes. Doesn’t matter. He’s inconsolable.

Scratch that idea.

Bath time is emphatically over for the night.

Funny thing, once he stopped sniffling against my chest as I rocked him, he was fine, even chipper, the rest of the night. Totally normal. We were both shaken, but he was okay.

The thought flashed through my mind: maybe he’s okay because he got what he wanted, maybe this was the first volley of child-testing-boundaries and we wimped out. Maybe we’re just too soft, god help us.

So be it. We can’t be anything other than what we are. We can’t listen to him cry and sit there with gritted teeth saying "it’s for the best" if we know he’s unhappy and we know it’s not necessary. Besides, that wasn’t anger on his face, it was fear.

And what’s the lesson here? If Damian grows up thinking he’s listened to, well, what’s wrong with that?

So we talked it over, decided it was time to tame the tub monsters lurking in Damian’s mind.

Saturday night, bath time once again. Except this time, it wasn’t Damian who took a bath, it was Dan. Call it a "you don’t know what you’re missing" ploy. Damian stayed to plop toys into the tub, then wandered off down the hall. Dan tried splashing a bit, you know, the "Oh, I’m having so much fun in this here water, splash splash splash!" routine. Didn’t work. Damian disappeared into his bedroom to investigate some trucks.

Time for the duck ploy.

A rubber duckie flew out of the bathroom, sailed down the hall to stop -- how convenient -- right in the nursery doorway. A perfect throw. What a pitching arm. Dan peered around the shower curtain, I sat by the bathroom door. We waited. A moment later, a determined little boy made his appearance, scooped up the duckie, and headed for the bathroom, pushing it in front of him as he crawled. Duck locomotion.

Once in the bathroom, he ceremoniously dropped the yellow fowl in the bath where it belonged and left the room once more.

Well, at least he’s not afraid of the sight of water. Just the sensation.

We tossed some plastic rings and things into the hall. He brought some back, but "can’t stop to chat, busy schedule, places to go and toys to take apart," departed for fairer (more toy-filled) locales.

Still, progress. Of a sort.

On to Sunday. I took a shower in the afternoon. Damian heard the water running, came to say hi. I peeked around the curtain, he thought this was funny. I turned the shower into a bath and sat down in some appallingly lukewarm water. Splashed around, "having a blast here, baths are such fun!" He gave me a few tub toys to enjoy and left. Oh well.

Sunday night, Dan put Damian in a dry tub. A moment of -- not panic, exactly, but concern -- and then he settled in. Just a different setting for the same activity. Dan even turned on the water, just a trickle, dribbling from the hippo’s mouth. That was cool too. And that’s as far as it went. Breaking down the phobia in gradual steps. Gently reintroducing the concept.

By Monday, Damian stood in the bathroom, clad only in his diaper, piling toys in and then -- Daddy, can I? -- getting in himself to better reach them. And, oh, is that water running? Oh my, the diaper came off. How about that? And, gee, what do you know? The water is up to my belly button.

Bath phobia vanquished.

Well, not quite. Last night’s bath started the same -- naked boy in an empty tub, water running, filling the bath -- everything peachy until... Dan got the idea of a sneak washing. Namely, use dishwashing liquid for a clean-the-boy bubble bath. Except the boy didn’t like the bubbles. End of bath. So he’s over the phobia except for the washing part.

We’ll get there. I’m very glad we did it this way, didn’t react to his fear with a "get over it!" or "grow up!", forcing him to sit there and cry until he somehow mysteriously understood. I think what he would have understood is that life is insecure, unstable, and your parents can be arbitrary and cruel. I realize there will be times he’ll rail against our rules (and yes, we do have a few -- chewing on electrical wiring is right out) and call us harsh and uncaring. But he won’t really mean it. Because we’ll never be arbitrary, not if we can help it. We’ll never exert our authority just to show we can. Which makes it harder in many ways, but maybe easier too?

Last night after his aborted bath, Damian got away from the enveloping towel and -- stark naked -- off he went, to crawl (wrong word, it was more of a saucy and gleeful hand slapping floor, head bobbing sort of motion) into the living room, reveling in nakedness. We followed him and laughed, admiring our confident, wildly happy boy in all his birthday glory.

And he didn’t even pee on the floor.
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