Like viruses, the insults of a young child evolve more rapidly under pressure. Weaker variants—”Daddy, you are not good at talking!”—are bested by the rational defenses of a parent’s adult mind and fall by the wayside. Inevitably, though, a random mutation will yield a more potent strain—one, perhaps, that pokes at Daddy’s advanced age. That mutant will in turn evolve, growing more and more annoying as the child gains purchase on the parent’s deepest neuroses. This is what we traditionally refer to as “pushing buttons,” which makes it sound like Kina has some sort of conscious control over me. Quite the opposite—she literally cannot help herself; she is evolving to become more capable of casually destroying me.
All weekend, as Kina has spun on her heels and called me “old man”, I’ve struggled to find the proper response. She seems moderately annoyed to be called a “baby”, but it’s barely effective. Worse still, it is embarrassing to be caught trading insults with a person who still can’t tie her shoes; there is too much to lay into, which really makes you question, generally, the morality of insults. Sometimes I tell her that it’s hurtful to call somebody “old”, even as I recognize that’s the point of the insult, but I want her to understand what she’s poking at.
What is she poking at? I’m not that old. I’m certainly older than I once liked to be, and older than I was when she was born—when I felt slightly too old to be having a kid in the first place. I do not go jogging with my child as younger parents appear to. I will never be mistaken for Kina’s older brother. I can’t spin her around like a carnival ride and skip off like I have a fully functional inner ear. Still, I am young enough to carry her around on my shoulders for long stretches. I am old enough to be able to reflect on her inner demons and fears, and to have the patience to negotiate with them. I am young enough to chase her around the running track (for a bit). I am old enough to feel capable of balancing my career and my parenthood.
I am young enough to have the good fortune of her company. I am old enough to recognize my good fortune.
Kina also tells me that my armpits are stinky. She tells me that Mommy makes better eggs than me. She tells me to go into the reflection room and that I should stop talking. She tells me that I am old. None of this makes a dent in the fabulous reality of the existence of a daughter who has the presence of mind to take a whirl at me. Parenthood, in this way, is like being dunked on and marveling at how tall your competitor has gotten. You lose, but we win.