It might be just me, but sometimes my children behave irrationally.
When this happens, my first instinct — usually indulged — is to return the child in question to whatever passes for “normal” behavior, as quickly as possible.
My second instinct, increasingly, is to reflect upon whether this irrational behavior might — just possibly — be something that I myself display, albeit in a more “mature” form.
It’s not really news that if you stand back and compare the behavior of children and adults, you’ll probably find more similarities than differences. For all the living and learning that we do, I think we mostly just add protective layers on top of our childlike instincts. We’re kind of like those Russian nesting dolls; we may look all grown up on the outside, but at our deepest core is a tiny little person. A tiny little person full of basic wonder, love, anger, fear, and who often screams, “It’s not fair!”
-When each of our daughters started sitting in a high chair and eating solid foods, they did so quite messily. So, at the end of each meal, we would wipe their hands and faces with a wet washcloth to prevent them from looking like human sculptures of mashed sweet potatoes. Remember, now, we did this following every single meal, three meals a day, for at least a year. We applied gentle pressure as we wiped, and the washcloth was pleasingly warm. In a spa setting, you’d pay good money for this kind of service. But every single one of our daughters would SCREAM like we were taking a Brillo pad to them, every single time we wiped them down. Now that it’s Georgia’s turn for the thrice-daily screamfest, I again find myself wondering, “WHY is this such a traumatic surprise to you? Isn’t this the exact same thing I did after your LAST meal? Not to mention EVERY meal?!?”
And yet, don’t we all miss the patterns and react with shock and outrage when we find ourselves repeating the same scenario over and over?
-At least 37 times a day, Campbell comes to me complaining (loudly): “Mommy, Sister won’t give me the doll/toy/marker/book.” I’ve learned that my first question should be, “Well, Campbell, did you ASK her for it?” Because over half the time, the answer is “No.” And once Campbell goes back to Fiona and simply asks for whatever it is she wants, chances are good that she’ll get it. (Or at least, she’ll get it after Fiona’s “done with it,” which often requires persistent requests every few seconds).
And yet, don’t we all angrily assume that something’s being withheld from us, when maybe all we had to do was ask?
-Our two oldest daughters sometimes lose control of themselves, in which case the best solution is for them to have a little “time out” alone in a quiet room where they can cool down. Recently, Fiona has started shouting, “FINE! I’m NEVER coming out!” from behind the door that we’ve just closed on her. As if, all along, this has been her idea; she’s the one in control, AND she’s punishing us. Because, you see, she’s NEVER coming out.
And yet, oh my gosh, don’t we all do this? We get so tangled up in our need to appear in control that we turn things around and punish other people without even realizing that we’re really the ones being punished.
-Finally, FAIRNESS. Ah, fairness! Four-year-old Fiona has just latched on to the concept of fair/unfair, so we’re all living with the refrain of “It’s NOT FAIR!” these days.
She says the words, because she’s four, but don’t adults — all of us — still feel it so painfully in our hearts? It’s NOT fair that other people live in Manhattan townhouses, that some people’s children sleep until 9 AM, that Erick gets to leave the house all day. WAAAAAH!
Of course, the appropriate response, to both Fiona and myself, is: “Life’s not fair.” That’s certainly true, but it’s trite and hopeless and a bit too Archie Bunker-ish for me.
So I’ve come up with my own little saying for our whole family: Never expect fairness for yourself; never accept unfairness for others. This is how I express my desire to quit whining about my own circumstances, and to start thinking instead about how I could help people who REALLY live in unfairness.
Here’s an example of this in action:
Two weeks ago, Fiona raised the “It’s NOT FAIR!” cry in the car, because (I’m not kidding) Campbell had frost on her window, while there were only “boring” water droplets on Fiona’s window. Armed with my nifty new slogan, I said: “At some point, Fiona, you will have frost on your window, so this is not really a question of fairness. But you know what’s not fair? Some children don’t have parents. Some children don’t have three meals a day. Some children don’t have nice soft beds to sleep in and roomfuls of toys to play with. Life ISN’T fair, but in the scheme of things, kiddo, you’re on the blessed side of the fairness seesaw. So, what are you going to do about it? Never expect fairness for yourself, but never accept unfairness for others!”
She hasn’t claimed unfairness again this week.
And that, my friends, is why my children will run away from home to become investment bankers.