I don’t see big-picture things, and I am most certainly not observant about patterns. My happy place is in the details. In the aftermath of a tornado, I’d be the person standing in a flattened trailer park with a can of Pledge, looking for a surface to dust. This is how I make Nick crazy, in that I can handily ignore wall-to-wall mess in any given room but then get all screechy and crazy eyes if an errant dog hair lands on the board game we’re playing. “Have you looked at this room?” he’ll say. NO. Just, no. And also, DOG HAIR.
So for me to have actually noticed this pattern of Isabel’s meant that it had probably been around for, oh, years. It went something like this:
Me: Aidan, is that you whistling?
Me: You’ve gotten very good at whistling!
Isabel: I CAN WHISTLE! LISTEN TO THIS!
For a long time, because I’m lousy with patterns, I was treating these conversations as isolated incidents, each of which led me to have this internal dialogue:
Oh, wow, poor Belle must be feeling left out. Or overlooked. Or whatever. I will now shower her with attention and praise and make sure she knows that she’s just as amazing as her brother.
Not because Isabel was doing anything else to make me believe this was the case, but rather because in my own childhood the adults in my life often failed to recognize the fact that I wanted their worlds to revolve exclusively around me. Resulting in what can be tidily summed up as issues. Issues that make me sensitive to the possibility of feeling left out or overlooked. (This is known as projection. Alternatively: Being dumb.)
So after she finished whistling, or spinning in a circle, I had a very formulaic response that would go something like, “Wow, Belle, that’s really great! You know what else I love about you? You’re so good at taking care of your pets.” Or, “You’re always so thoughtful.” Then I’d make sure that she and I had a quiet moment, without her brother, when I would say, “Hey, is everything okay? Are you feeling like maybe you need more time with me?”
And she would scrunch her face and raise an eyebrow and go, “NO. Why? Is something wrong with you?”
But I kept doing it. Only, after a while, I started to notice that things weren’t quite adding up. Isabel is not an attention-seeking kid in general; in fact, she has always seemed pretty well adjusted in that way. And there was the major issue of my strategy just plain not working.
Me: Wow, Belle, you’re a great whistler, too! You know what else I love about you? How you’re so sweet with your brother when he gets scared at night.
Isabel: Yeah, sure, Mom. Am I a better whistler than Aidan?
She didn’t care. For all I know, she didn’t even hear me, because my words weren’t coming in the magical form of, “You are better than.” Instead, I would say, “You’re both excellent whistlers,” followed by a quiet moment in which I’d try to make sure she knew she had my attention and she would say something like, “You’re being really weird.”
Finally, it began to click: It wasn’t about feeling overlooked. It was about the desire to be number one. It was about jealousy. And while I have childhood hangups about attention, I’ve none when it comes to envy. Instead, I have a very heartfelt grown-up position: Stop it.
The realization that Isabel was not seeking attention, but rather to win, came as she was belting some horrible song, off-key, from the back seat, in an attempt to one-up her brother. And I knee-jerk reacted.
“What?” At first she asked because she’d been singing (kind of) and didn’t hear me.
God, yes. That, too. “Trying to always outdo your brother. It’s not cool. Just, knock it off.”
She was quiet, and I felt bad. I didn’t know how to reconcile what I’d just said with my parenting philosophy. Current parenting wisdom – all the stuff I’ve agreed with for ten years – tells us to avoid the word “no,” to praise good behavior instead of correcting poor behavior, to use language that acknowledges the child’s emotional needs. And here I’d just flippantly told Isabel to “knock it off.”
The thing is, as an adult, I have watched far too many otherwise rational people say and do wicked things out of envy. I have no tolerance for it, which is why I reacted so hastily. It’s a sad and ugly thing to indulge in, yet so many people can’t seem to help themselves… People who are missing a crucial self-awareness trigger that should make them question why they are feeling so hateful. And maybe even worse, people who have apparently never learned a very important life lesson: Not every feeling you feel is valid.
This was my epiphany.
I’ve taught both of my children that sometimes their brains will lie to them. That our brains can be mischievous and will sometimes try to make us think or see things that are scary, or mean, or that we just don’t want to have in our heads. “Even though our brains can be hard to control sometimes,” I say, “WE are still the ones who are in charge. And if your brain tries to make you think about something you don’t like, you just tell it, ‘Brain, I want to think about my birthday instead!'”
Yes, this is scientifically questionable. But it works. It’s with this advice that Aidan, in particular, is now a master at putting tutus on the monsters that his brain sometimes tells him are under his bed, and making them dance with pink hippos.
And it occurred to me, driving in the car that day, that in all the years I’d spent trying to validate my children’s feelings, I’d never let them know that sometimes their feelings will lie to them, too. Sometimes their feelings will want to blame someone else’s success for their own less-than-stellar results. Sometimes their feelings will want to make someone else feel bad in order to make themselves feel better. Sometimes their feelings will want to join up with other people’s feelings and torment someone they don’t like. Sometimes their feelings will be vile and shitty. Sometimes their feelings will act… well, sometimes they will act like little children.
Little children who need to be told no.
And I thought, This whole “don’t say no and focus on the positive” parenting thing is kind of like ice cream: A little is good; a lot gives you brain freeze and makes you cry. There are practical limits to it, especially once kids advance past the age of 5 or so.
If I am ultimately trying to raise strong adults, rather than perpetual children, then the parenting needs to mature as they do. I need to ease them – gradually – out of the world of constant validation and into the reality that sometimes they will need to be the managers of their own bad thoughts, feelings and behaviors. And I decided, then, to make sure that one of my parenting goals is to instill that “little voice” that will remain with Isabel and Aidan throughout their lives, raising a mental flag when they are acting like jerks. Because they will act like jerks. We all do, from time to time. The measure of a person isn’t whether or not you’re ever tempted to act like a jerk, it’s how you handle it when you inevitably find yourself in the situation.
Handling yourself well starts with the little voice in the back of your head; the one that tells you, “Hey, stop that. It’s not cool. Knock it off.”
This is the story of how “knock it off” became part of my parenting vocabulary. It’s how Isabel actually stopped thinking about promoting herself long enough to hear Aidan sing and say, “Wow, Aidan, that’s really good!”… and how that reaction became part of her vocabulary. It’s how Aidan learned from that, too, such that he regularly and emphatically points out how very good Isabel is at reading and cooking and just being a super cool person. It’s how we all started to learn to put tutus on our bad feelings and make them dance. And it is hopefully how Isabel and Aidan will always have the voices in the backs of their heads to help prevent them from contributing to patterns of jealousy and bullying and, even more importantly, remind them to clean the dog hair off of board games before putting them away.