I knew it would come some time... That point at which your wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked toddler turns into a knowing, precocious preschooler. When people stop being reliably amused at their funny exploits and outbursts, and start giving them, and you, rather less of the benefit of doubt if they act up. A threenager is well and truly among us.
This loss of innocence really hit home the first time Duckling genuinely embarrassed me in public a couple of weeks back. He's generally a pretty good kid when we're out, if a little selectively deaf and exuberant at times (when he's not being painfully shy). So as we entered the National Trust property we were visiting that day for a picnic, I didn't think twice about taking five minutes to fill in an membership form (#middleagedandproud). I quickly realised my mistake as Duckling rolled his eyes at me and huffily declared he didn't WANT to sit down, he wanted to go and have the picnic NOW. I informed him that demanding was never the right way to get anything, and he would have to wait. I sat him beside me as an NT volunteer started to take me through the form.
My friend's little boy came to sit with us. Duckling took exception to this and tried to shove him off the bench they were both on. Stern words got a petulant look and had little impact so I took Duckling onto my lap where he wriggled about in irritation. The valiant volunteer tried to give him an activity sheet to distract him. Duckling threw it on the floor in disgust, shouting "I don't want that!". He then tried to grab my friend's son's sheet too, in which, unlike Duckling, he was quietly and politely showing great interest. I died a little inside, but with the volunteer still patiently completing the form - "and could you spell that for me please?" - I had no choice but to sit there, restraining a struggling Duckling, and issuing "I know you're hungry but we DO NOT do that!" and "we are going to have WORDS about this in a minute young man," threats under my breath. At last we escaped, but not before the volunteer - who had clearly not learnt his lesson - tried to proffer another leaflet Duckling's way, only to have it derisively thrown back in his face. Profuse apologies and a serious talk with Duckling predictably followed.
He's only three, I know. It feels like an excuse but he truly doesn't yet understand that good manners should apply in ALL situations. He is prone to melodrama, eye-rolling and like all three-year-olds, he's also a bit of a narcissist who doesn't fully get empathy yet, as much as I might like him to. He also has a great love of biscuits, and for him, eating the shortbread we'd bought was the primary purpose of our whole expedition. I know all this, yet I can't help taking this sort of behaviour very personally. I am excessively English. I hate rudeness, awkwardness, or for anyone to think badly of me or my offspring. For my son to behave like such a spoilt brat was mortifying. How could a child of mine act so entitled? Am I an awful parent? Everyone must have thought he was vile! And at a National Trust property of all places! The middle-class SHAME of it!
There have been other incidents since, all underlining that my son has left his two-year-old innocence well behind. He's still enthusiastic, bubbly and full of fun, imagination and giggles, but also moody, bossy, egocentric and very dismissive of anyone "silly" (which seems to be largely everyone at the moment). He's also particularly articulate, which I think is what makes this new phase so fraught with potential humiliation. He is totally honest. Whereas before he just yelled and cried, now he can explain (or shout) exactly what he thinks and feels - but with few filters and some obvious impulse control issues, it's not always what people want to hear.
In some ways I long for the largely mute innocence his four-month-old sister still displays. Yet I know there's no going back. So as humiliating as National Trustgate was, it was also a wake up call. I realised that my parenting methods may need a bit of a polish. I simply cannot rely on him being guileless and cute in social situations anymore. I need to more actively teach politeness and self-control and help him to understand why he can't just yell whatever he's thinking, even if he is hungry and bored. Modern parenting manuals all laud "modelling" as the best way to teach manners - well I'm sure it does play a role, but I know I am always unfailingly polite in public (I'm fairly sure I've never thrown a major strop at an Edwardian country retreat before for instance) so I think its powers are possibly overrated. Boundaries and consequences seem to work better for us.
In an odd way, I'm quite looking forward to helping Duckling through this next stage. He's (mostly) mastered the basics of life - how to walk, how to eat independently, how to use the toilet, how to talk... Now we get to teach him how to be a decent, thoughtful and sociable little person. I hope I'm up to the challenge. Though I fear I may need to toughen up (or avoid National Trust properties) while he gets there.