I love this expression – perhaps I should say ‘diagnosis’ – because it captures so evocatively the difficulty of a particular phase of childhood. It’s not a syndrome in the technical sense of the word, obviously, more a kind of tongue-in-cheek shorthand for a psychological phenomenon. Trust me, though: my first son suffered from it and it felt very real indeed. From about 10 months to 2.5 years old, this kid could not stomach a broken biscuit, literally or figuratively.
You know the scene. The biscuit comes out of the box in pieces or apart in the artless hands of the child trying to eat it and the shit hits the fan. Hard. I have a friend whose wife called him up from the local Starbucks, screeching into the phone for him to come immediately, the pitch of hysteria in the background so high he couldn’t help but think there was grave bodily harm involved. He arrived, out of breath and in a panic, to find that the only injury sustained was to a recently purchased cookie. Horror of all horrors: it had broken. And on the floor next to it, flailing, was his 23 month old daughter.
I have seen ‘broken biscuit syndrome’ explained in two different ways. One explanation is that the biscuit becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A toddler’s life is about making sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense. So many rules to master, so many conventions to internalize and all of them conveyed with an inevitable degree of inconsistency. ‘No’s run legion, lines are drawn – sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes not – and these little people just do not have the emotional wherewithal to handle every setback that comes their way. They can cope with the first thing on a given day that falls to pieces, but not necessarily the last. This is the biscuit. It represents one upset too many.
This explanation has merit as a description of the general way in which small children struggle for control over their environment. But it doesn’t explain the significance of the biscuit itself. Not every kid goes crazy when the cookie crumbles. I realized this one day when I found my second son, no more than 14 months old, hunched purposefully in the corner of the kitchen. He had found an old cookie on the floor, which somebody must have stepped on, and was rhythmically shoveling the pulverized pieces into his mouth. He didn’t care how many parts it came in so long as they all ended up in his tummy. Other things sent this boy over the edge, fair enough, but never, not once, the lack of a perfect circle.
Which leads me to believe that there is something about the idea of wholeness that matters to some children and not to others. This is the second explanation. I read about it once, of course I can’t remember where now, and it makes perfect sense of the difference between son number one and son number two. The first was a worshipper at the altar of order. From the time he was old enough to move on his own steam, his play consisted of the systematic organization of everything that crossed his path. He was repetitive, he was fastidious, he liked the world around him to be just so. And when it wasn’t, as it isn’t some of the time, he lost it. The broken biscuit was, for him, the ultimate indignity. My second son, on the other hand, was far more resilient and flexible at that age. If anything, he seemed to thrive on disorder. Give him a breadstick in two bits and he would play the drums with them, not burst into tears.
Broken biscuit syndrome is no fun for the kid, to be sure. It might be indicative of certain personality traits that will follow him into adulthood or it might simply be a blip in his development that will fade away as he acquires a larger armory of coping skills. The person it affects the most while it is happening, rather, is the parent. Not because he or she has to spend a period of time riding out the storms of a toddler’s rage, though there is definitely that. But because it is an early – and powerful – symbol of the reality that there are some things in your child’s life that you simply cannot fix. Cookies, both real and metaphorical, will continue to break for him and you will not be able to put them back together. Such is their nature. All you can do is hope that the kid learns to pick up the pieces for himself.