12-year-olds and toddlers have a lot in common

November 17, 1996|By Susan Reimer

MY FRIEND Nancy noticed her son had his fingers in his mouth, absently pulling on what she figured was a sore jaw.

Nancy teaches toddlers, so she knew right away what was bothering her son. He was teething. Again.

Mark is 12 years old and he's lost three molars in the last month and his mouth is a source of constant, vague pain. He is cranky and behaving for all the world like a giant-sized version of the little ones Nancy teaches every morning.

Welcome to adolescence. The Terrible Twos Plus Ten.

"I looked at Mark with his fingers in his mouth and flashed back to 10 years ago. We dealt with all these things once," said Nancy. "And now we have to deal with them again."

If her 12-year-old would stop carping at her for longer than 10 seconds, any mother might be able to think back 10 years to when the same child was a toddler and see a resemblance.

Huge leaps in height and weight, with body parts growing at different paces and causing all sorts of clumsiness. Unpredictable eating patterns, changing sleep patterns. A nap would make both toddlers and 12-year-olds more civil, but they won't admit they are tired.

"We used to be able to just put them in the crib and let them cry until they slept," Nancy said with a sigh of regret.

Toddlers and 12-year-olds. Both are in constant rebellion. Huge independence issues. Daily power struggles. They want to wear what they want to wear. They want to do it themselves. They want you to leave them alone.

"Only now it is, 'I want to go to the mall by myself for six hours without you following me around,' " said Nancy.

Their emotions are all over town. Moody? Absolutely. And most of those moods are bad.

"They cry at the drop of a hat, but they don't want to," said Nancy. "There is this incredible sensitivity and all these temper tantrums."

You can't reason with either toddlers or 12-year-olds. One doesn't understand your explanations, the other won't listen. They push you away and then cling to you, weeping.

"Nursery school teachers and middle school teachers," said Nancy. "Mention that's what you do at a party and you get all kinds of sympathy and attention. 'God,' people say. 'You work in a war zone. You must be a saint.' "

Toddlers and 12-year-olds. They are hard to love. But I think they love each other. Misunderstood and outcast, they turn to each other in wordless companionship. I have seen it.

My own personal 12-year-old cares for his toddler cousin much as I imagine the wolf mother did for young Mowgli in "The Jungle Book."

His name is Joe, but she calls him "Doe" and reaches out for him as if she had no mother.

He acts as her personal slave and human stepladder. He carries to her an endless stream of treats and toys until he discovers what she is crying for. She points, and he lifts her.

When he tries to put her down, she clings to his neck and scrambles her feet up his rib cage so he cannot. He smiles and rolls his eyes in delighted resignation and carts her off to see his frogs. Again.

At night in a strange house, she is fearful and crying and wants only him. He stands in the dark and rocks her until she sleeps in his arms and then he gently places her in a strange bed.

I have seen the same scene played out among his friends. His buddy Jack, bigger and stronger than the other boys his age, once spent an afternoon in the shallow end of the pool playing "fetch" with his toddler neighbor, ignoring the peers who called for him to play sharks and minnows in the deep end.

These two boys, who might not rescue their younger sisters from in front of a speeding train, are hopelessly devoted to toddlers.

"They do so well with each other because they are at the same stage," said Jacqueline Haines, director of the Gesell Institute in New Haven, Conn., which studies the growth and development of children.

"They are both testing limits, trying to find themselves in a world in which they suddenly find they have some power. This creates anxieties as well as excitement, and they have empathy for each other.

"It is an amazing thing to experience. Two ages that would appear to have nothing in common understand that the other is (( going through the same thing."

Middle schoolers who can't seem to find a place in a peer group blossom in the presence of toddlers, Haines said.

The middle schooler who is being pushed out of the nest but doesn't have the maturity to cope with being an adult realizes that someone is depending on him. The toddler adores him, thinks he is a god.

A middle-school boy might be a mother's last choice as a baby-sitter, but he might be the best choice. While his female classmates are drifting into self-involvement and conceit, his antennae sense the needs of a young child.

"They have a real sense of being responsible. They sometimes surprise themselves," said Haines.

Not to mention the mothers who are watching.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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