My little boy is growing up. I’ve got to face the facts.

We were at my friend Elizabeth’s house in Northampton a couple weeks ago and she mentioned his upcoming third birthday and how he was becoming such a big boy. Aidan got very serious.

“No,” he said, shaking his head and gesticulating with outstretched hands. “I’m not a big boy. I’m not a baby. I’m a little boy.”

Can’t really argue with him there. If you compare him with Elizabeth’s nine-year-old son Henry, for example, who devours books and kicks butt at Pictionary and Sudoku, then he’s absolutely right. He’s only 36 inches tall, after all, and he still reaches down my shirt and says, “I love MommyMilk” on a daily basis.

Along with his birthday has also come exploration of his identity and individuality. I am reading a book about discipline called Redirecting Children’s Behavior (which is pretty interesting, although not all the tips work with my-too-smart-for-his-own-good little rascal). It said something about not calling kids “baby,” because they might find it belittling. I asked him one day if it was okay if I called him “baby,” and he said, “No.”

“Alright, what should I call you then?”

“Aidan.”

I said, “Okay, but I do also like to call you other names, pet names, because I love you so much, you know, ‘sweetie’, ‘angel’, ‘honey bunny.’ Is that okay?”

“No, just Aidan,” he said.

I got nervous. “But you are my honey bunny. How can I not call you that?”

“No, I’m Aidan.”

“Well, I can call you ‘boo,’ right? I mean, we’ve always called you ‘boo.’”

“No, just Aidan,” he said.

I know I have to respect his request, but it is really hard for me! I don’t call anyone I love by their names. I’m on a pet-name-only basis with my husband (“babe”, “baby”, “boo” before boo came along), my cats (“Jacky Jack”, Jackpot”, “Waggsy”, “Wags”, “Maggie Jean”, “Maggie Sue”). And up until now Aidan has been the worst. I rarely call him Aidan. It’s feels almost awkward. Instead, I call him baby, honey, sweetie, sweet, sweetheart, sweet face, cutie, cute face, cute monster, monster, mister, Mister Cutenstein, Cutie McCutenstein, cutie patootie, patootie, sweetie patootie, sweetie face, honey bunny, gorgeous, handsome, hotstuff, angel, baby angel, angel baby, my love, lovey, lovely, love bunny, monkey, monkey face, monkey man, silly, silly face, silly billy, boo, boo-bear, baby boo, baby bear, bugaboo, boo the boo, boo da boo, you name it.

So I slip up a lot, and he calls me on it.

“Not ‘sweetheart,’ Mommy. Aidan,” he corrected me last night. “No pet names. Just Aidan.”

There are other signs of his newfound maturity. During that same trip to Northampton, we went for a long walk downtown. We checked out ice sculptures in a local festival, window-shopped, bought Girl Scout cookies. One shop was having a huge sale, so while the kids played, Elizabeth and I looked at drastically reduced Uggs and Patagonia coats.

The store had toys on the floor for kids to play with, including cars and trucks, which of course attracted Aidan immediately. About five minutes after we’d left, when we were about three blocks away and it had turned very cold and begun to snow, I noticed that Aidan was holding a Matchbox car.

“Can I see that?” I asked him. He showed it to me. I didn’t recognize it.

“Is that Henry’s?” I asked.

“No.”

“Is it from that store?” He grinned the same mischievous grin he’s grinned every time I’ve caught him walking out of a store or daycare with something, generally a car or truck, that doesn’t belong to him.

I launched into the lecture I use in such cases, about how that toy doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to the store, and he can’t take it because what will the other children there play with and we have to leave those things so he has something to play with the next time he goes back. Only usually I notice the item when we’re just outside the door and we can turn right around and bring it back.

Well, there was this one time in the Zurich airport, when we’d played in the awesome daycare center and then walked for ages and taken a shuttle to another terminal way on the other side of the airport before sitting down to lunch. Only then did he remove from his backpack something like five race cars he’d swiped. Same naughty gleam in his eye. Same lecture. But I wasn’t about to bring them back. Just like that day on Main Street in Northampton. It was freezing and snowing and we’d been walking for a long time and he was exhausted and I was exhausted and he’s little and walking back three blocks takes a while on those little legs and I just wasn’t about to do it.

I’d just read this section in Redirecting Children’s Behavior about modeling behavior that upholds your values—like leaving a note if you hit someone’s car or bringing shit back if it doesn’t belong to you—so I felt even guiltier for not going back than I ordinarily would, but even though it meant setting a bad example for my son, I was too cold and tired to go back to the store. So I didn’t.

When we got back to Elizabeth’s house, I showed the car to my friends. Everyone made a big show of shaking their heads and saying, “Aidan! That’s not your car. Oh goodness,” but sort of laughing as they said it, sending the mixed messages we often unintentionally send to our kids. Aidan grinned, but there was guilt behind his pride.

I told them the story about the Zurich airport and Aidan listened intently.

The next day we were collecting his toys to pack up and go home. When we got to the car he had taken from the store, he said, “That’s not my car. We bring it back.”

“What?” I asked.

“We bring it back to the store,” he said.

Elizabeth jumped in. “I’ll take it back for you, Aidan. I go to that store all the time.” He handed it to her.

I was blown away.

And a couple weeks later, when we stayed with friends in New York who have a young son, Leo, and mistakenly took home one of his cars, Aidan said, upon emptying his backpack at home, “That’s Leo’s car. We have to send it to him.”

My little boy’s growing up.

But today he tried to swipe a truck from the daycare center at my gym. He was holding onto it so tightly I couldn’t pry it from his fist. I managed eventually to convince him to find a hiding place for it inside, so it would be there for him next time, but no one else would be able to play with it until then.

That worked.

I guess, like he so smartly pointed out, his metamorphosis from little to big boy is not yet complete. Thank God he will still be my baby angel sweetie face lovey honey monkey face for a little while longer.

Like the kid needs more cars!

Like the kid needs more cars!

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