A brilliant, Harvard-trained Ph.D. who was teaching a business school class on negotiation that I attended not long ago added intriguing dimension to her lecture with an interesting personal anecdote. This insightful strategist, who consults with multi-national corporations on complex contracts and achieves astonishing compromise in intricate negotiations involving conflicting cultures and millions upon millions of dollars, had this to say about her five-year-old grandson:

“He gets whatever he wants.”

And she added this minor qualifier: “At my house, my only job is to keep him safe from harm. Otherwise, he gets whatever he wants. If he wants a cookie, he gets a cookie.”

She did not elaborate on this fascinating revelation, but I’ve pondered it many times since, and here’s my interpretation: You can train at Harvard on theory and best practice, you may be gifted with an agile intellect that equips you to whip corporate bozos into shape right, left, and center, but you can’t negotiate with toddlers. There is no way to win, so save your dignity and give it a miss.

Not long after I attended this lecture, I was gifted with one of many examples of this Fundamental Truth of Grandparenthood (FTG).

I procured for Brother’s birthday a tiny, intricately accessorized, toddler-scale riding car, a battery-powered version of my own set of wheels. He loves my car (even at life size, it looks rather like a toy), so I hoped this would be a hit, and it seemed just so. Sadly, however, it was pouring rain on the actual birthday, so his parents authorized a road test in the hallway of the house. The technical skills of forward and backward acceleration were quickly and masterfully achieved, but the judgment to check the surroundings first was, like Batteries, Not Included, and the first casualty of this mastery was Small Sister. Hovering behind and hoping for a ride, she got knocked to the floor and partially pinned under the rear fender in the work of a moment. No more, said the parents over the wailing, until we can take it outside.

The sun obligingly appeared the next morning, so the license to drive on the sidewalk was immediately applied for to the appropriate authorities. Better at least try, I admonished myself guiltily, to talk about staying out of harm’s way.

Okay, I said sternly to the miniature Mario Andretti, gathering him close and giving him the old eyeball, it’s time to talk about safe driving. “Okay,” says Mario, unsure where this is going. To drive safely, I roll on with the Darth Vader tone, you mustn’t run into other people. Especially babies. Surprisingly, this prompts an immediate, sorrowful assent.

“We don’t hit babies,” he repeats, with a sad shake of the small head.

And no dogs or cats, his father supplies, watching nearby. This also brings the necessary response, intently spoken. “We don’t hit babies, or dogs, or cats,” he agrees, solemnly.

This exchange occurs near a window overlooking the front yard and framing the intoxicating sight of sunshine and freedom. He checks the view carefully for a moment, then turns back to me for his final salvo. It is delivered with the head cocked slightly, hope blended with just the facts, ma’am, and the keen instinct not to smile in presumed triumph. “There are no babies or cats or dogs out there NOW, Evie.”

Game, set, match. We are off for the open road.

The departures gate creaks open, admitting the mid-day sun and a puff of air into my stuffy front hallway and illuminating the piles of luggage and Absolute Necessities that travel everywhere.  The pile is crowned by the ragged and ubiquitous Mr. Bunny, an overturned Spiderman travel cup with a cat hair stuck to the spout, and a single, sparkling metallic Tom’s toddler shoe, forlornly waiting to be reunited with a restless, chubby foot.  The taller travelers load themselves up like coatracks at an oversubscribed office holiday party, silently balancing items from every appendage, sometimes in multiples, navigating carefully with the weight that swings this way and that, taking silent inventory as they start forward.

Oh!  Two more items that mustn’t be left behind:  The children.  I reach out a hand to the older, wondering if his forlorn expression mirrors my own, trying to re-arrange my thoughts and, I hope, my face.  He accepts my hand, and we follow in procession behind the staggering Coatracks, keeping a safe distance from their swinging loads.  Come on, urge The Coatracks, time to go, time to get home.  To blow out of here and leave behind the dead air that briefly follows a fighter jet’s billowy plume across a bright sky.

What to say, I’m pondering as we trundle on, but he speaks first.  Perhaps I am imagining it, but I choose to hear a tiny chime of hope in his voice when he asks:

“Are you coming with us?”

A good Girl  Scout or former camp counselor probably would have laid out a schedule, maybe even in writing, with proven estimates of time required for each activity, interspersed with breaks for healthy, pre-approved snacks.  Instead, it was just Me, alone for the afternoon with Brother and Small Sister and mortified to feel like such a rank amateur.  Clearly, if you believe the Gospel According to Facebook (and who doesn’t?), other grandparents use these cherished times as effortless opportunities to bond kindred souls across the generations.

Right.  We now return to our regularly scheduled program, and that activity list that unfolded in a more spontaneous fashion:

  1. Create tent between two chairs using old sheet.  Show children how to hide in it without tripping over entrance flap and upending structure onto curious dog, hovering optimistically within the danger zone.  Snap photo and text to absent parents to attest all is under control and old-fashioned fun abounds.
  2. Move on to Creativity Time with crayons and Dinosaur Jumbo Coloring Book.  Hang finished masterpieces on fridge.  Remove half-bitten fuchsia crayon from mouth of Small Sister, gingerly and cleverly without getting bitten.
  3. Shift ho for the Great Outdoors, remembering tricycle handily acquired at garage sale for $9.  Console jealous, wailing Small Sister, too short to pedal, while Brother rockets away, out of reach.  Caving in when consolation fails, try letting her stand on trike’s back rail, clutching Brother’s shoulders.  Naturally, she lets go on the first forward lurch. Leap forward barely fast enough to catch her in backwards flop, inches before small head would have collided with sidewalk pavement.
  4. Check watch.  Battery might be dead, as it indicates only 45 minutes have elapsed.
  5. Drop to the ground exhausted, swamped by feelings of certain inadequacy.  Whatever, I sigh, this lawn is huge and secluded from traffic.  What if they just run wild for a bit; do I have to stage-direct every minute?  Who am I kidding; could I, even if I tried?

Freed from suggestions, direction, or clutching, anxious hands, Brother takes off running in wide circles around me and Sister, who for once seems to realize that giving chase would be futile.  He runs along with a rich, shouted monologue that may relate to medieval sword-fighting, or space travel, or possibly both.  I can’t catch all the narrative.  Why isn’t he tired yet?  But pretty soon, I’m rooting him on, wishing I could be along for the ride.

Run, Brother.  Run like the Superheroes who are never far from your imagination. Run from the nap you don’t want to take.  Run for the questions that pour out, too fast to be answered in grown–up tempo, and for the ones that don’t really want answers, anyway.  Run to amaze your sister, as mesmerized and adoring as any loyal sports fan.

Run, Brother, run.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been smack dab in the path of a tornado, as I once was, many years ago, but it’s true what they say:  There’s an unsettling, yellow-tinged calm all around, just before the maximum-force winds blast through.  That was the atmosphere in my front hall just before I opened the front door to my smiling, efficient son-in-law and his two junior-level partners in crime.  First over the threshold was the older of the Juniors, a fast-talking miniature of his father, and close on his heels was the small, determined rendering of her mother some three decades back.  Ages four and two, they were, in the usual pattern, both talking at the same time.

Son-in-law deposits a few items of paraphernalia, rattles off a projected return time, then blows back out again in the work of a moment.  But…wait.  No printed Instruction Guide?  Are equipment or tools of some sort required?  Should I be embarrassed to even think such thoughts?

No matter.  Closing the door behind him and drawing a deep, cleansing breath, I turn to receive a very deliberate, eyeball-to-eyeball stare from Small Sister, three feet below sea level.  What’s in that look?  I see humor, I’m certain and grateful, and there’s curiosity, I get that, but clearly, and first in line, there’s assessment.  She’s not much for the long,  complex phrasing at this early stage, but here’s the statement written all over her face:  I’m pretty sure I can take you.

We’ll see about that, I think as we nod to each other, like two pro wrestlers preparing to make the first move on the mat.  I sidestep her for the moment and deliver in her brother’s direction the quintessential question that begins and ends all adult/toddler scenarios:

Do you need to go potty?

No, no, no, he intones firmly, I want a snack and apple juice.

Surely I’m on solid ground here, I was a waitress once, I know how to fill orders, so I hop to it pretty snappily and am rustling cups and napkins when suddenly he streaks past in a blur, pointed back toward the bathroom and shrieking at the top of his lungs, HELP me, Evie!  HELP me!

I reach the finish line just a nose behind him and ascertain that a particularly stubborn snap on the pants is the source of this momentary terror. I wrest it open just in time for the business that must result.  But disregard the relief of this near-miss, because it is followed immediately by a high-pitched scream from the direction of the hallway.   Just around the wall from the bathroom, I locate Small Sister face-down on the hardwood floor, where her chubby, unwieldy feet presumably landed her in an ill-fated attempt to join the field in the Potty Derby.  I hoist her up to find her nose already bruising and oozing big red droplets.

Oh, perfect.  Parents haven’t been gone 15 minutes, and already we’ve drawn blood.

Two years after I skidded haplessly into the ranks of grandparents with the arrival of our mysterious man-child, the new generation gained yet another member.

And this one is a girl.

Aha! I nod to me, feigning confidence.  Surely I’ll have the occasional, random notion what do to with this one.  After all, I parented a small female back in the distant mists of of the dark ages.  How different can this one be?

Sure enough, familiar signs manifest themselves pretty quickly.  A miniature of her mother at that age, she reaches for purses and necklaces and makeup before she can walk unaided, distinctly prefers pink, and is mesmerized by sequins, shine, and frills.

In other words, she is the girliest of girls, straight out of the starting gate.

And yet, surprises unfold.  The biggest?  She’s Rambo in a Tutu.  An astonishing combination of confidence, determination, and will rockets her forward through her toddler days.  She will not be contained, quieted, or ignored, and rarely slowed.  Pretty much ever.

No one will ever have to encourage this child to Lean In.

I observe this dynamic and can’t decide whether to laugh or quake in fearful anticipation of looming disaster.  Maybe I’m just a tad envious of this boldness, this unwavering compulsion to damn the torpedoes.

Where does THAT come from?  And how can I get some?

Chasing a ball on my lawn one recent evening, she shoves a small, fat foot into a hole and swan-dives into the grass, pearl-skinned nose in the dirt.  I stifle a cry and lurch forward to the rescue, but before I can console, she springs up, concludes, “I’m all right!” with the finality of a judge slamming down the gavel, and bounds off before I can survey for blood.

A few days later, her older brother is late-evening cranky, and I’m thinking a fresh-air tonic is the ticket.  Get your shoes, I instruct him.  Let’s go for a walk. This outing is not intended as a threesome, as she is already in pajamas.  But before her pouting sibling can muster a response, she has located her own shoe (only one, of course) and is waving it in front of me, jumping up and down like a college football coach trying to call time out with 20 seconds left in overtime.  There can be only one answer:  Of course you can come, too, of course you can.  We wouldn’t dream of going without you.

On a recent visit to the neighborhood pool, she is a bit tentative about the water at first, but she finds her voice and raises it ferociously against the forces of injustice.  A small cadre of older boys (about age seven, I judge, and she is a Mighty Two) has taken possession of her Minnie Mouse kickboard, slapping it with their swim noodles and enjoying the resulting thwacks and radiating sprays. This indecency cannot be borne.

“YOU BETTER STOP THAT!” she bellows, splitting eardrums of passers-by at least a good block away.  “YOU SHOULDN’T DO THAT!  THAT’S NOT NIIIICCE!”  I glide over sociably, amicably, retrieving Minnie while the boys look around for the source of this racket.  Catching sight of this miniature blonde Officer of the Law, they sneer cheerfully and move on to other prey.  “I SAID, IT’S NOT NICE! ” she shifts into Verse 2, refusing to be ignored, “DON’T DO THAT ANYMORE!” It’s OK, I placate, I got Minnie, it’s fine, they stopped.  Distraction is the only effective strategy, so we glide away in an aquatic piggyback ride.

Some strange twist of cultural expectations may compel me to intervene, but at heart, I’m really digging her approach. What woman doesn’t occasionally want the abandon to bellow at some guy who done her wrong?  Who doesn’t crave the confidence to charge forward in the face of, well, anything?  Who wouldn’t cherish the ability to articulate the wishes dearest and closest to the heart, with perfect clarity?

The other day she traversed my living room to locate me working in the kitchen.  Evie, she called, while I’m stacking dishes.  Yes, precious? I answer, but don’t turn around.  Evie, she repeats, with a slight upward twist of the volume knob.  This time, I turn slightly but proceed with my task.Yes, darling girl?  (I love to lavish vintage endearments on them; no one else will tolerate that but the dog.)  Evie! she insists, and finally I relent, stopping to hoist her to eye level, woman to woman.

Evie, she softens the delivery now, with her quarry in direct sight.  I wait for it.

Evie, this whispered with blue eyes locked on mine, serious, deliberate, precise, unmistakable.

Evie, I want a peach.