My kindergartener, Quinn, is really starting to read. Last night, he read the sentence, “My hands are for catching,” and my heart swelled up with pride. Once the swelling went down, panic struck. Pretty soon this kid’s going to be able to read The Rye Record! I might as well squeeze in one more article about him before I’m shut down for good.
Two weekends ago, Quinn and I were at a basketball tournament, and during halftime he challenged my friend John, a grown man, to a game of HORSE. Now John might read this, and I don’t want to embarrass him, but let’s just say Quinn was pleased with the outcome of the game. John was gracious about it and suggested they have a rematch some day. A week later, John showed up at our house at 9 a.m. to pick up his son after a sleepover. Quinn opened the front door and said, “Hi, Mr. Tartaglia. We can’t go downstairs because there’s another play date down there, but…”
And that pretty much sums up the life of Quinn Monaghan. In a thousand years it would never occur to him that this grown man — a taxpayer, husband, and father – wasn’t there to have a play date with him. After all, he is the youngest of three and his world is designed entirely for his pleasure. And why wouldn’t it be? He’s so darn cute. His parents and his older brothers love him in a grandparently way: Sure, have another cookie.
I know what it’s like to be Quinn. I was the baby in my family, also the youngest by five years. Like Quinn, I always had the sense that I was an add-on, there for my family’s amusement. And, like Quinn, I always did pretty much whatever I wanted. I remember my brother, older by 10 years, having chores to do and being nagged about his homework. My sister did all of the family’s laundry. Not me — I did my first load of laundry in college, and I don’t think I ever did a chore until I had my own home.
The thing about birth order, particularly when there is a big age difference, is that the kids are growing up in totally different families. When I had one and then two kids, we were a young family. It was a time when I used to say, “Chairs are for sitting” and “You may have a cookie after dinner, but just one.” And I meant it. We were zealous about rules and routines, mainly because we could be. But by the time Quinn came around, we were no longer a young family. We were a family in the midst of chaos, with bigger fish to fry than how long a time-out should last. If only I had a penny for every time I’ve said to him, “Fine, have the cookie. Just get in the car.”
Quinn goes to bed a lot earlier than everyone else. And it is the bane of his existence. While he gloats over the fact that he’s the only one who gets the bath-pj’s-storytime routine, he goes to bed suspicious. He wonders what we’re doing and why he can’t be part of it. All we’re doing is watching the rest of “American Idol”, but he suspects we’re all engaged in some unspeakable fun, the kind that can only happen when the baby’s not around. I say goodnight to him with a pang of guilt, because I used to feel exactly the same way.
The youngest child is privy to a lot of information. While the oldest child watches “Baby Mozart”, the youngest lives in a world that is almost entirely PG-13. Quinn’s never seen “Sesame Street”. Not even once. Pretty much everything he knows about life he’s learned from CNBC, “The Family Guy”, and listening to my telephone conversations. He notices everything, like how people spend their time or contradictions between what people say and do. He stores information and then springs it on you at just the right time. He was 5 when he asked me, “Would you rather make out with a monkey or be stuck in an elevator for three days?” He was 6 when he noticed, “Jesus must have been a really nice guy. He’s been dead like forever, but everywhere you go people are still talking about him. It’s like Jesus this, Jesus that, all over the place.” There are a lot of reasons why I wouldn’t peg this kid as the future Pope, but at least he’s paying attention.
By the time I was in high school, my sister and brother had left home. I suspect that parents are born with a set capacity for supervision, and by the time I was a teenager my mom had run out. No one really ever knew where I was (the only potentially glorious thing about the pre-cell phone age), so I was free to spend my time however I wanted. Like any kid that age, I divided it evenly between the church and the library.*
But, surprisingly, by the time I was a teenager, I’d gathered so much information about how the world works and the perils of bad choices, that I managed to turn out okay. The youngest child doesn’t have rules or naps or piano lessons, but we end up being scrappy and street smart. We are sheltered from very little, so we grow up already knowing what the deal is and how to be flexible in the face of change.
Someday in the not too distant future, Quinn’s going to be the only one left at home. I imagine we’ll be begging him to stay up with us to watch “American Idol”, Season 19. We’ll probably be lax about some things and will have wised up about others. I’m pretty sure he’ll be reading pretty well by then and will be resourceful enough to have found these articles. Let’s just hope he keeps his sense of humor. If not, I can always give him a cookie.
*Note: Two of my kids do know how to read, details may have been modified.