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.