“Go play with your sister. That’s what we had her for.”
I’m going to begin this week with two stories, both of which happened before noon on Monday.
The first takes place just after breakfast–that is, after my son’s breakfast. Like every morning, he had two scrambled eggs, strawberries, and a mini bagel with (vegan) butter and jelly. We use vegan butter because his sister has a fairly severe dairy allergy and is susceptible to reactions on contact. She has a similarly severe allergy to eggs, but my boy has been eating the same breakfast for quite some time, so his eggs are the one allergen we still keep in the house.
Given little sister’s allergy, it is imperative that V-Rex washes his hands after breakfast. He knows this and most days goes straight to the bathroom after breakfast to wash up. Today, though, he was feeling very four years old and just didn’t want to do it. Seeing how he moped and dragged on the way, I followed him to make sure he got the job done, asking what was wrong as I stepped into the bathroom behind him.
“Why does Li’l Boo have to be allergic to eggs?” he asked.
Kid, that’s the million dollar question. But he wasn’t asking it out of concern or pity for her; he was just annoyed at the inconvenience of washing his hands. That’s fair enough, but I hadn’t had my coffee yet and was annoyed myself at his new reluctance to perform this small daily ritual. I explained that I didn’t know why, but that even if she weren’t allergic he would need to wash up because he had eggs and jelly all over his hands and face.
The situation did not improve. He started kicking away the step stool he uses to reach the sink, saying he couldn’t wash his hands because it was sliding. I have to admit, dear reader, this creating a problem in order to use that problem as an excuse for not doing a thing is by far my least favorite four year old behavior. I may have raised my voice a bit. I may have told him that if he didn’t wash his hands he would not be allowed near his sister and would therefore spend the entire day in his room. I definitely settled on leaving the room and telling him he would not come out until he had washed up.
I half expected an explosion of toddler rage, but to my surprise and relative pleasure, he actually did wash up and emerged moments later in a suddenly much-improved mood. And thus ends our first story.
As I believe this story illustrates, I sometimes fear that the considerations my son has to take for his sister might be having a negative effect on him. As often as they provide teachable moments about empathy, selflessness, family responsibility, and so forth, it is never far out of mind that to a developing brain that is inherently self-centered the message received may be more of resentment than responsibility. One may tell a four year-old that it is important to think about others or that his actions may directly impact his sister, but one cannot make a four year-old actually care whether said sister gets a rash on her face and hands or make him believe that avoiding that rash is more important than his immediate gratification. And when he is being punished for actions that harm no one but her, how natural would it be for him to begin to see her as the cause of his troubles? My experience as a middle school teacher tells me it will be a long time before his first inclination is not to look for blame outside of himself.
Our second story comes about two hours later. After playing with some blocks and toy astronauts following breakfast, I decided it was too nice a day to spend sitting on the playroom floor. As I was the last one in the house still in jammies, I got myself dressed, loaded the littles into Momma’s minivan, and made for the playground. This was my first time, but not theirs, since our town playground had been augmented with some very cool new equipment, including a pirate ship-shaped swinging platform and a tower (with slide and rock climbing wall) modeled after the town’s well-known lighthouse.
Naturally, V-Rex wanted to show me everything, but playgrounds are still slow-going for the two year-old. I did my best to divide my attention, but I had to stay close to my smaller, slower, and somewhat more fragile child. For a while this was fine, but my boy is used to having most of my attention and soon grew impatient for a playmate.
“Come on, Daddy,” he called. “Let’s go find treasure!” And he bounded up towards the play lighthouse. I told him I was coming but had to wait for his sister, then started urging her along, taking the long way around so that she could climb up by herself and holding her hand up the steps.
When we got to the lighthouse entrance, my son surprised me. Looking past me, he called to his little sister, “Do you want to come up?” Then he took her hand and slowly, gently, led her up the stairs. As he got to the top step, he turned around and melted my heart.
And up she went. Then they both sat on the floor, looked down the long blue slide curving out from the lighthouse, and decided they were not ready for that craziness. As a couple of toe-headed toddler girls blew past them and zipped down the slide, my boy asked his sister if she wanted a hug then leaned in and embraced her briefly before I had to interrupt to urge them out of the way of the next wave of slide-riders.
As I told a friend later, I try to reassure myself that moments like the first story are indicative of V-Rex’s age, not his character, and that the moments of tenderness are the true signs of the kid we’re raising. As in all things, it’s easy to focus on the bad and forget that it’s really more the exception than the rule. (The teacher in me thinks of how often I’ve had a poorly behaved class but realized upon review of the roster that it’s only a few troublesome students out of the lot.) But when you’re involved in something that feels as monumentally important–and for which you are so uniquely responsible–as child-rearing, the significance of the bad moments is especially easy to magnify. So if I ever seem to use this blog as a platform to brag, maybe that’s just me trying to reassure myself that my kids are going to turn out all right.