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The Age of Repetition

"Again! Again!"

Am I the only mom who cringes at the Teletubbies segment in which Dipsy, Po, and the gang clamor to watch a second showing of a film clip of children finger painting  -- immediately after it just played? I keep waiting for the kindly narrator to say, "Nooo, it's time to do something else!" But it never happens.

I have to hand it to the show's creators  -- they know their audience. If young babies are physically primed to routine by their bellies and their bowels, by toddlerhood it's the central tenet of their existence.

"Again! Again!" My youngest daughter, Page, was quick to pick up the phrase not long after her first birthday. One minute she could only say "Mama," "Dada," "hi," and "fish" (which meant anything from a fish to a dog, cow, or animal cracker), and the next thing I knew she was leading me down the rabbit hole to a world where once was never enough. "Again! Again!" was her all-purpose way of saying, "Let's read the book again. Another cookie, please. Don't stop now and try to cook dinner  -- I want more peekaboo!"

Empty the diaper-wipes box, sheet by sheet, stuff them all back in, take them all out again. Put your shoes on, take your shoes off. At 22 months, she learned to unfasten her own diaper. Diaper off, diaper on, diaper off  -- you get the idea. It's during moments like those that I have special empathy for parents of twins, doing things not twice but in quadruplicate.

The trouble is, I chafe at repetition. No matter how wonderful something is the first time, I never find it to be quite so great by the second go-round, whether we're talking vacation destinations or Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Going through the same motions day in, day out taps reserves of patience I never knew I had. I can handle the occasional fingernail scraping a chalkboard, but please keep me away from the tedium of "The Wheels on the Bus" or "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."

Little kids, on the other hand, thrive on all things circular. Unable to read a clock, they pace their day by the familiar rhythms of breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. Seeing the same faces day after day in the same places reassures them that, in a world they can neither control nor understand, they're safe.

Little wonder this penchant for patterns reaches its zenith at bedtime. Events must unfold in a certain order (bath, pj's, stories, kisses). Favorite lullabies must be sung. I understand all this as I hunt around the house at night for KiKi (a.k.a. Blankie) without whom Page's bedtime will be a nightmare for me.

But the understanding doesn't stop me from feeling annoyed to find myself outside in my bare feet retrieving a dirty blanket from under the seat of a Big Wheel. Even with KiKi in hand, I'll still have many miles to go  -- make that many miles to rock and board-book pages to read  -- before she sleeps.

Repetition, of course, does more than make a toddler feel secure  -- it's how he learns. "What happens when I press this button, and this one, and this one?" "If I read this book one more time, will it come out the same way?" "Will everybody still crack up the fiftieth time I say, 'Ready or not, here comes me!'"

At first we parents are delighted by these experiments. It's just not quite so much fun the 50th time you have to say, "Stop touching the remote!" Before I had kids, I used to hang on every goofy utterance and funny move my little nieces made. I couldn't understand why their parents seemed half tuned out to their charming stunts. I couldn't know it was because I was seeing the girls for only two hours at a time.

Funny, though, how the slow, going-nowhere pace of life with a toddler zips by when measured in a year. Today's tedium is tomorrow's fleeting memory. On Page's second birthday, she blew out the twin candles and clapped her hands. "Do it again!" she commanded. Watching her sitting in her high chair, suddenly more Big Girl than Baby, I flashed back on all our peekaboo games, the raspberries I'd blown on a round belly during diaper changes, the rocking-chair readings of I Am a Bunny.

If only I could relive it all simply by saying, "Again!"

Contributing editor Paula Spencer's latest book, Momfidence (Crown), will be published this fall.