Monthly Archives: January 2021

It’s complicated

It was bedtime, and Arlo was tired and being difficult. He’s the youngest, which is a hard place to fall in the family sometimes, and typically the fallout happens in the hour before he heads to bed. We used to let the kids watch two episodes of a show in the evenings, but I’ve felt uncomfortable about that for a while, so recently we changed the routine to incorporate a family game in place of one of the episodes. The older kids are happy with this because they really enjoy the games and are usually great about losing, but Arlo has a tougher time with it when he’s tired. He’d lost both hands of Uno that night and was disappointed not to be able to watch two episodes of “Octonauts”, and then upstairs he said he was bored of the Magic Tree House book Brian was reading to them even though he had been told that he could pick out a short book to read as well. If Arlo didn’t have older siblings, we most likely would be reading exclusively picture books, but because we have to appeal to a wider audience, he is asked to abide a lot of exposure to content that is more appropriate for kids of advanced age. It’s just easier for the older kids to enjoy a picture book than it is for Arlo to enjoy a chapter book, so understandably he protests.

Brian feels strongly that all of the kids should read together at bedtime, so he asked Arlo to go over and just sit with them for the duration of the book, but the child was complaining and adamant that he would not move from his position, which was lying on the bed in the master bedroom. We tried all sorts of things to get him to cooperate, but it just wasn’t working. Once we’d exhausted every avenue of “what to say to a five-year old to get him to give into the request we are making of him”, I had a thought: What would I say to him if he were the adult in the situation, and it was a child asking him to read books with him? It couldn’t hurt, so I tried, “Arlo, it’s not about the book. Daddy didn’t get home until almost 6:00. He just wants to spend some time with you.” I still had to carry him over to the sofa to deposit him, but he stopped resisting.

While I put away some clothing and tidied up, I half-listened to the chapter of the Magic Tree House book, in which the protagonist children, Jack and Annie, conclude their 22nd Merlin Mission, and caught these words: “‘Yep, but first we have to write down our new secret of greatness,’ said Annie. Jack pulled out a pencil and picked up the paper that was still lying on the floor. And under the word HUMILITY, he wrote: HARD WORK. ‘Hard work,’ said Annie. ‘That’s so simple.'”

Well, Jack and Annie, I agree that humility and hard work contribute to greatness. And I know that you are children, so you can’t appreciate this yet, but let me tell you something: it’s not so simple. And it sure isn’t easy. Greatness isn’t an endpoint, either; it’s not a destination at which one arrives, drops his bags, and sinks down into an easy chair. Greatness happens in moments, and it’s always a work in progress, evolving to meet each new instance, rifling around in the toolkit for what would best suit each given situation, and sometimes finding that new tools need to be created. This is humility and hard work, yes, but it’s also a process imbued with complexity. Let’s circle back to this discussion when you have kids. In the meantime, get back to that tree house, please, because there’s a 23rd Merlin Mission and someone has just got to save Florence Nightingale.

Allegory of the raspberry lollipop

One day after I picked the kids up from school, we went through the drive-through at the bank on the way home so I could make a quick transaction. The teller at the window asked if we’d like lollipops, and I said, “Yes–thank you! We’d like three, please!” She came back to the window brandishing three red Tootsie Pops instead of the usual little Dum-Dums we’d been expecting. Because we’ve programmed ourselves to set our expectations at absolute zero these days and considering the fact that my children all adore Tootsie Pops, this felt like a holy moment. I thanked the woman profusely and reached into the metal drawer to find that there were, in fact, three red lollipops there, but they weren’t all the same flavor. Two wore bright cherry-red wrappers while the third boasted a magenta cloak of raspberry. I knew immediately that this presented the potential to elicit discord, or at the very least consternation, unless the unlikelihood that two children wanting cherry and one child wanting raspberry could exist.

Liam didn’t seem to have a strong preference, so it came down to the younger two, who of course both wanted the raspberry. I’m on edge during the hours between school pickup and bedtime because that’s frequently when the moods can shift quickly, often making interactions difficult or complicated, so the thought crossed my mind that it would have been so much easier if the woman at the bank had just given me three of the same flavor. I thought, ‘How hard would it have been to pick three cherry lollipops and thereby negate the necessity of the negotiations I’m about to have to navigate with these people?’ As soon as that notion took shape in my mind, I heard in it the echo of past generations and realized my error. I had absolutely no right to teach these kids that life always hands everyone the same flavor of lollipop, that everyday events are meted out by a hand of circumstance that is at all egalitarian. How dare I even desire to alter reality by presenting the idea that fairness isn’t the exception to the rule? Sure, it would be easier for me in the moment if I could have said, “Oh, look, kids! Three cherry lollipops, one for each of you!” but it might not have made life easier for the kids, or therefore for me, in the long run. Maybe it’s the accumulation of microcosmic unfairnesses that contributes to a well-adjusted human, one who is pleasantly surprised when things work out in ways that please everyone equally but who certainly doesn’t expect it.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to moderate a dramatic disagreement. After about thirty seconds, Arlo said, “It’s okay; Summerly can have it,” and once everyone had agreed that the next time there is only one preferred treat coveted by both, it would go to Arlo, the Tootsie Pops were distributed without further ado. I spent the rest of the car ride wondering: is Arlo’s flexibility a byproduct of being the third child, inured to the constancy of inequality endemic to never having existed without siblings? Is he just magnanimous beyond the paucity of his years? Did he really not care that much and see no reason to make an issue? Is he (as I’ve suspected for a while but would never say to him, at least until he’s grown) a child genius who already grasps the benefits of playing the long game? Or is he a brilliant manipulator who didn’t want the raspberry at all but thought this would give him the edge next time when there may be something even better in the offing? If I ever know the answers to these questions, I’ll let you know.

What I do know is that sometimes it makes the most sense to hand everyone the same flavor of lollipop. At times it’s a good idea to read the room and recognize that the energy abounding suggests that another iron in the fire might lead to an unproductive conflagration that would suck the oxygen out of the situation and smelt nothing but seeds of dissent. And at other times, though it might feel counterintuitive, it’s a worthwhile decision to choose to allow for the opportunity to practice “working things out” because that’s what people spend most of their lives doing. If we give every kid the piece of cake with the sugar rose on top every time, why wouldn’t they expect the same with each cake to come? If we prepare them for reality in a world where sugar roses are few and far between, we’re doing them a service and saving everyone a lot of frustration and chagrin, or worse, later on. Is this easy for parents? No. Is it usually exhausting? Completely. Is the dividend worth the investment? Absolutely. Is life like a box of chocolates and you never know which one you’ll get? Maybe, at least sometimes, life is knowing exactly which chocolate in the box is which and that you might not get the one you want. But maybe a sibling will give it to you anyway, which is even sweeter.