What About the Wheel that Doesn’t Squeak?

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Stump, plotting world domination in his sleep.

Stump, who will turn two-and-a-half next week, has become a tyrant, and I am afraid of him.

If you sit on the left side of the couch, he will point at you and scream, “That’s my spot!”

If you sit on the right side of the couch, he will point at you and scream, “That’s my spot!”

If he wakes up in the middle of the night, and you crawl into his bed to comfort him, he will kick at your legs and tell you, “Go away!”

When you get out of bed and step towards the door, he will cry, “Mommy, no go!”

In the morning, when you’re making pancakes, he’ll get excited and want to help. He’ll grab a wooden spoon and stick his fingers in the batter. When you go to pour some on the pan, he’ll shriek, “No! No cook it! I like it cold!”

He will say the same thing about frozen tacos.

When you are trying to write an email, he’ll sit in your lap, cuddle sweetly, and ask to see pictures of sharks. When you bring up a picture of the ocean, he’ll point and insist, “Go there! Go there!” and then he will collapse against you in tears because you cannot transport him into your computer monitor.

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Smoke

All of this puts Smoke, my going-on-seven-year-old, in a somewhat precarious position. “Not you too!” I find myself saying to Smoke any time he gets dramatic or pouty. Because Stump’s demands are impossible to meet, I call on Smoke to be easy. For the most part, he complies.

When he whines that he’s hungry I say, “Get yourself a snack—you’re capable!” and then he does it. When he cries over a lost Lego piece, I say “I’m not helping you find it until you calm down.” He takes a breath and wills away the tears.

I’m not sure how guilty to feel about all of this. I value the skill of self-containment. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I wanted Smoke to have a sibling in the first place—I wanted him to have the companionship of siblinghood, but also to learn the challenges of deep sharing, of splitting the resources of time and attention.

But there is another part of me that wishes I could create a force field around my older son, or that he could get vacation from siblinghood, from sharing, from being told to control his behavior because he’s the one who knows how.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor right now there’s no force field and no vacation, but the jelly bean jar is coming in handy. Originally, I created it to help motivate Stump to learn use the toilet: a jelly bean each time he tried. Smoke (who of course has been diaper-free for years) would also get a jelly bean for using the bathroom—the idea was that Stump would see his brother earning treats and imitate him.

But so far it hasn’t worked out that way. So far, Smoke pees, and then asks me for his jelly bean while Stump is busy tearing up some other corner of the house. So basically I’ve created a system to reward my almost-seven-year-old for continuing to use the potty.

I’ve decided this totally works for me. Because in the end I think Smoke totally deserves a reward for being the one who can control his elimination needs, the one who can share the couch, who understands that frozen tacos need to be heated, and who accepts that you can’t always get what you want.

My Six-Year-Old is my Guru

SweetSometimes my kids blow my mind without even trying.

Yesterday I had three six-year-old boys in my living room playing Legos. The play date was coming to an end and Sam, one of my son’s oldest friends, wanted to bring home the storm-trooper-on-a-motorcycle that he had fashioned out of Smoke’s Legos.

“No, you can’t take it with you,” Smoke told him, “because last time when you borrowed my Bionicle it broke and you never brought it back.”

I was sitting on the couch grading papers, and I looked up to appreciate the line he’d just drawn. I was struck by the absolute clarity of Smoke’s answer, and also his even delivery. His voice was calm. It wasn’t loaded with resentment or grief. He was simply calling it like he saw it.

But, Sam was not impressed. “I never asked to borrow it. You just left it at my house.”

Cody, a new friend who wasn’t privy to this history, joined in Sam’s defense. “He didn’t ask to borrow it, so it’s not the same.”

The helicopter parent in me poised to jump in, to restate Smoke’s position and make sure it was honored, but that turned out to be unnecessary. “Well I never got it back,” Smoke told both of them. He took a breath. “Sam, here’s what what we can do. I won’t take apart your motorcycle.” Sam was nodding already, relieved at the idea of compromise. “And if you fix my Bionicle and bring it back, then you can borrow it after all.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a boundary set so cleanly. My son didn’t learn that skill from me. I’ve only recently learned that my relationships don’t have to follow a script, that when someone makes a request of me I’m not required to give them the answer they’re hoping for. Lately, I try to catch myself in the act of delivering a line, of giving a Yes or a Maybe when what I really mean is No. I try to remind myself that I can give the answer I actually mean, but that answer never comes out easily. I stall, I stammer, or my voice trembles, or it’s tainted with defensiveness.

But Smoke’s gentle assertiveness makes me wonder: What do we know before we un-know it? What communication skills are we born with that time corrodes? And what can I do to preserve in my kids their own clarity, their intuition, their emotional intelligence?

Two nights ago both of my kids were still awake at ten pm. It’s June in the Pacific Northwest and so it’s still light at nine, and of course there are barbecues and spontaneous visits and deer sightings that get in the way of our bedtime routine. But no matter  the reason, I start to lose my mind at ten pm when my kids are still awake, and on this day Stump, my 2-year-old, had just insisted on a snack.

Sneer“Goldfish,” Stump said after his bath and then he repeated the word “Goldfish” at least two dozen times. I knew he wouldn’t quit and I was too tired to fight, so I sat him at the kitchen table with a small pile of Goldfish crackers. But it turned out that he wanted the Goldfish crackers, not to eat, but to construct an interpretive scene. I sat in a neighboring chair and leaned my head against my hand. I was done.

“No cry Mommy,” Stump whispered, and he brushed his fingers across my cheek. “No cry Mommy.”

No one in the history of my lifetime has ever been able to pull me out of a funk so easily. I hadn’t been on the verge of tears, but Stump’s empathy perked me up, and I laughed. Stump laughed too and continued to touch my face. “No cry, Mommy. It’s okay, Mommy.” He was teasing me and comforting me at once.

I wished that Kellie had been there to witness Stump’s feat of emotional intelligence. Earlier that evening I had complained to her about some problem and she responded by saying “Why do you let that bother you?”

“That doesn’t help!” I told her, but when she asked me what she could say, I could only answer: “I don’t know!”

But now here was Stump, hours past bedtime, rescuing me from myself, as if he arrived in this world knowing all my secret codes and how to crack them.