First published in August 1992 in Psychiatric Times, this psychiatrist joyfully recounts a memorable outing with his grandson.
In the face of it, a 22-month-old toddler and a 62-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 I assumed when Igor, my 2-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 incorrect. In the first place, this luminous, intense, jumping-jack, bounding magic-ball boy was not the helpless one. I was! His smile, protuberant forehead, sparkling eyes, strategic utterances, and occasional spontaneous, unsolicited hugs, given with enthusiasm and alacrity, 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 to serve him. Any ideas to escape, disengage, or avoid him became unthinkable. He proceeded to dictate the terms of endearment and my joyful servitude for the entire weekend.
And what a weekend it was! He first touchingly coped with the absence of his mother and the result-ing uneasiness. He would from time to time pause and say, “Mommy gone to church,” a bit of sadness and longing in his sweet voice. Then, when I reassuringly hugged him, he pulled away and once more launched into exploration around the cottage of the lovely barrier island near Southport, NC.
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 (Greek 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. He grabbed a small stick and ushered a 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.
He suddenly turned to me and ran. “I want thalassa! Thalassa!” (Greek 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. 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 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.
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 that “determine the how of behavior,” as defined by Thomas and Chess, the well-known child researchers in this woefully neglected field.
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 allow ourselves to acknowledge. In other words, he has inborn propensities and traits that will guide him in some way to eventually be the person he wants to be. Within the parameters, opportunities, and overall circumstances of his life, he will, in his own innate way, somehow handle-even choose-the events, experiences, adversities, and hardships that 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 and outside events and circumstances in shaping one’s personality, the either-or argument of the so-called nature-versus-nurture becomes really an inane statement.
There will be developmental milestones, phases, if you please, but ones that this beloved boy will face and handle (and already had begun to handle during that memorable weekend) in his own way, Igor’s way, just as my son did before Igor, and his father-me-before him.
That is how it is and always has been, and every mother knows it and every mother’s mother before her. We psychiatrists know about it, but we often ignore it, perhaps because we are too busy collecting data and applying it “Procrustes” fashion to fit the lopsided and therefore erroneous premise that every child’s, eventually every adult’s, emotional and personality makeup, as well as emotional disturbances, can be traced exclusively to environmental influences and circumstances, especially to a mother’s supposedly faulty ways and attitudes toward her child.
Igor was busy throughout the weekend. His temperament, clearly discernible even at this early age, was a distinct one (just one of many in existence but 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, gregarious but, at the same time, having a touch of aloofness, a kind of “being-his-own-person,” all pointed to a particular temperamental type, which can be described as a “pathfinder,” a discoverer.
At the other end of the temperament spectrum, there are warm, comfortably social, accommodating, “obedient,” acquiescent children who behave as though they 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 might be called the “sentinels,” the keepers of the hearth. Both of these distinct types, probably with many subtypes between, are worthy contributors to the welfare of the tribe, society, or group. The pathfinders contribute innovation 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 education milieu for each genotype. Thomas and Chess called such an environment a “goodness to fit,” deliberately created to benefit each child’s temperament type. Hopefully, such sophistication will, with further study, eventually be incorporated into our education system.
And then, yet another discovery! When, as with other children, my grandson would burst into laughter, perhaps proclaiming his joy for sharing with me “the gladness of the scene,” it dawned on me that this was part of this repertoire for conveying emotional messages and giving his roll call, so to speak, of his presence to the world, the so-called nonverbal emotional language as it exists in all children at this early age, fully developed and in place. Igor knows 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 to me as to his whereabouts, only to reveal himself, laughing. Furthermore, his ability to “read” and comprehend the very same range of feeling from me and others was also fully developed-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. “We will be back together soon, Igor,” I said the following morning 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.
This article was originally published in the August 1992 print issue of Psychiatric Times. The sequel, "Igor is Now Grown Up" appears in the June 2014 print issue of Psychiatric Times.