By Scott Jacobs

momsI may not be the first 58-year-old to attend the toddler activities group known as “Moms & Tots” at Holstein Park. Nannies are regular substitutes, and grandmothers have been roped into the task on occasion by their workaholic daughters. But I suspect I am the first man of my age to attend with his 18-month-old son.

The Moms & Tots class for kids one to three years old takes place every Monday and Wednesday morning. For an hour and a half, they gather in the park playroom to destroy toys, chase around balls and hoola hoops in the gym, smear finger paints on a table (and themselves), eat a snack, and go home.

My son Nick especially likes the playroom because they have a plastic kitchen set where he can pull all the plates off the shelves and a padded ramp he can run up and down––practicing for a future career as Sisyphus. They also have cars so big you can climb in and push yourself around with your feet. I like the class because it was the first place I saw him show off.

The Moms

As our little charges run about, I find myself sitting on miniature chairs with five women I don’t know. They are all on a first name basis, with each other and their kids. I can’t tell the Natalies from the Ilana’s and the Laurens and the Heathers––which ones I’m talking to and which ones are their kids––but they are kind enough to include me in their conversation.

Three of the mothers are pregnant. One has scheduled her delivery for the next day at Prentice Hospital. This prompts a lively discussion of which room she has booked––the corner room overlooking the lake is preferred––and how much better the new Prentice is than the old. I have little to contribute on that front. Yes, I too have been in the new Prentice, but only to visit a friend dying of cancer a couple months ago. I decide to keep that to myself.

There is also a lot of talk about the best museums to visit with your kids. Some like the Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview because it has a great train room. Others prefer the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, but hate paying for parking.

The gem in this mix of opinion is The Chicago Nature Museum in Lincoln Park and its atrium filled with butterflies. It’s got a playful gift shop and plenty of room for stroller parking. “Go on Thursdays. It’s free,” one says. “Let them run wild in the butterfly exhibit. They’ll wear themselves out in an hour so you still have time to get home for the nap.”

The Tots

They call these kids pre-schoolers because they haven’t yet entered the yaw of American education. As they progress through life, half the kids who attend public schools in Chicago will never graduate from high school. Less than 20 percent will actually graduate from college. At this early stage of their lives, the sea of writhing bodies before us is all potential. I listen to the moms talk about how they can fill these vessels with cultural enrichment, and I think to myself how much life itself will teach them.

I have two other sons, now 24 and 20, of which I am equally proud, if not more so. They’ve navigated the shoals of adolescence, gone to college, and come out the other end none the worse for wear. So much of what is good about them has come from finding a thread that interested them, and pursuing it. Dads, I think, are more inclined than moms to give a child his head, to see what he comes up with.

Nick wakes up in the morning with his head bobbing above the crib rail smiling. “Hello,” he says, throwing his arms around my neck. I lift him on my shoulder and we open the blinds to look out over Fullerton Avenue at the passing cars and trucks. After we ooh and ah over the things we recognize, we go downstairs for breakfast. I make coffee and a bottle of milk. He eats cheerios and bananas off the platter of his high chair while I read The New York Times.

My wife comes down later (no later than 7 AM) and asks whether I fed him breakfast. I say yes. Then she makes him a “real” breakfast and I go off to work.

& Me

Being a father again, with two other grown sons, gives you a certain perspective on child rearing you won’t find in all the books and websites devoted to the topic. Stuff happens. The child development specialists don’t tell you that in the advice they dispense.

You can get weekly emails telling you what kind of behavior to expect at each stage of your child’s development, when his teeth will come in, when he will throw his first tantrum, and how to say no. But that never really prepares you for the subtle ways that stuff happens.

You can organize play groups to help your child socialize, exchange tips at the playground whether Suzuki violin is more beneficial in the long run than Wiggleworms, and buy all the Baby Einstein DVD’s you want to teach and/or occupy your child while you are busy doing something else. Kids inherently have minds of their own. I have never seen my son more creatively engaged than when he is emptying out a kitchen drawer.

All I can tell you as the voice of experience is that you can’t plan the kid’s future. You can give him opportunities, but you have to recognize that sometimes he won’t take them. As proud as I am of my son’s newfound ability to run up and down a ramp, I know it is a passing phase. He’s a healthy, curious and adventuresome kid. He’ll master tasks and move on. He’ll play with cars, then, someday, perhaps build them. Or maybe he’ll write poems about them. Stuff happens.

The only advice I have to my fellow moms is chill out. Growth takes time. Pay attention to all the warning signs of a medical problem, but don’t think every failure to achieve is a sign of a learning disability. You can’t doctor your way out of who your kid was born to be. You can only encourage him or her along the way to find that out for themselves.

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