by Josie Glausiusz
A few days after we moved into our new apartment in Ra’anana, Israel, I noticed that my not-quite-two-year-old boy was very quiet and was nowhere to be seen.
I looked around our box-stacked apartment and discovered him in my husband’s office, sitting calmly at his desk. He was playing with a pair of pliers, and he looked very pleased with himself. I couldn’t help but laugh. And this is a new sensation for me, because in our old home in New York, I would never have let him wander around our apartment on his own without watching him and his twin sister very carefully. If I was unable to stay in the same room with them—if I was cooking, for example—I’d put them both in their double-size playpen where they would play with their toys. Not always willingly, I should add, but most of the time without tremendous fuss. But when we moved to Israel last October 15, we came with only our suitcases, and nearly all of our possessions—including the playpen, a newly purchased piano, our furniture, computers, wedding china, and a red-booted, wooden Nova Scotian folk art chicken—traveled via ship to Israel in a 40-foot long Zim container.
Now the playpen has arrived in Israel, and we are planning on selling it. My children have been liberated from it, and in the process I have liberated myself from some of my fears of calamity befalling them.
I am a nervous mother: I admit it.
I gave birth to my twins at an age when many of my friends are sending their children to college, and I became pregnant after enduring seven rounds of fertility treatment and an earlier miscarriage. Perhaps as a result, I suffered from debilitating anxiety during my pregnancy, even worrying that my worrying could impair my babies’ brain development. Until they were about nine months old, I crept into their room every night at 1 or 2 a.m. to make sure they were still breathing. If they napped in their bouncy seats in the living room, I would carefully check that no cushions could levitate from the couch, ricochet off the walls, and land on my babies and smother them. As they grew older and began crawling and walking and climbing, I worried that they would fall off the slide in the playground, or wander out of the playground and get lost, or swallow something nasty that they found in the grass.
As any twin mom can attest, it’s not always easy to supervise toddlers who are determined to run in opposite directions. During our first five weeks in Israel, we lived in a rented, furnished apartment and for the first week or so it seemed as if my children were going berserk: climbing on the furniture, opening, slamming and shaking the doors, unraveling the toilet rolls, emptying the kitchen cabinets of all the pots, pressing all the buttons on the washing machine and turning it on and off, and ignoring my requests to stop, come back, and sit down. If I had had a playpen, I certainly would have put them in it. But I didn’t. And as I discovered, Israelis aren’t too impressed with the idea of confining your children in a cage. A babysitter who worked for us for precisely one morning looked at me derisively when I told her about our playpen and cynically remarked, “very good for their emotional development and curiosity.”
Just as it seemed as if I was about to lose my marbles, I had a wonderful conversation with the children’s nursery school teacher.
One day when I went to pick them up after lunch, she said to me, “your kids don’t really listen to instructions, do they?” I agreed, with some embarrassment, that they did not, and that I had no idea how to encourage them to listen, either. She said, “call me; we’ll talk about it.” So I did. Her solution surprised me: not, as I had expected, more time-outs or more rules, but, “you need to give your children more responsibility.” Have your children pick up their toys at the end of the day, she suggested. Sing the “clean-up” song with them. That evening, I told my twins to pick up the plates and spoons they had thrown on the floor during dinner. They willingly did so, and seemed to enjoy the task. They also enjoyed sweeping the floor, packing their toys in boxes, and hiding their shoes in the scattered soup pots.
Israeli attitudes towards toddlerhood, I’ve found, are quite different from those I’ve experienced in the U.S. I’ve noticed that Israelis seem to be more liberal about allowing toddlers to follow their natural instincts and explore, even if it means more chaos. When a worker came to install our new dishwasher, I apologized for not listening to his detailed instructions, because I was chasing my children around at the same time. “My children are very curious,” I said. “But that’s what you want; that’s good,” he replied. “You don’t want them to be phlegmatic.”
During a recent visit to Tipat Chalav (Well Baby) clinic, my kids walked behind the nurse’s desk, pressed all the buttons on her computer, and turned it off. Then they emptied the rubbish bin on the floor, opened all the drawers in the room, found a packet of plastic spoons, took them out and stuck them through the slats on the window blinds, laughing all the time. When I posted an anecdote about this clinic visit on Facebook, my American friends seemed mildly surprised about the absence of control—MY control—even though I was attempting in vain to curb the chaos. One dear friend commented, “Wow….very cute! My pediatrician (whom I adore) would have lectured me on the need to enforce the 1-2-3 strikes you’re out rule and give them a time out!” But the Tipat Chalav nurse remained calm throughout, and seemed to think that this was exactly the kind of behavior she was looking for in a toddler – a sign that they were developing normally.
Let me be clear: I’m not in favor of children running wild, either. Or playing with pliers. But when I watch my lovely children bouncing up and down on a see-saw, or bravely climbing steps to the slide that are half their own height, or climbing into a cupboard, crouching down and then leaping up and laughing, I think about all those times in our lives when we try to re-create the feelings and experiences of early childhood, where everything is new and different and exciting. For them, to open a kitchen drawer is to discover new and amazing inventions: a potato masher, a garlic crusher, a soup ladle. They find an old breast pump flange, and turn it into a trumpet. They turn a clock into a telephone, hold it to their ear, and say, “’allo, ‘allo.” Life may have been calmer in a playpen, but definitely less interesting – for them and for me. And there is no way you can teach your children the value of freedom unless they experience it for themselves.
Josie Glausiusz is a journalist who writes for Nature, Scientific American Mind, and other magazines. She recently returned to Israel with her family after living in New York City for twenty years.