We’re at the local neighborhood playground after school, my two boys and I, playing some basketball. Our 9 year-old, D, had been hungry – and tetchy and sullen – so we’d stopped at a shop and picked up a packet of bread sticks.
A bit later I notice my 5 year-old son, G, looking dejected, and discover it’s because his older brother has refused him a bread stick.
Now in the grand scheme of things, a bread stick does not rank up there among the gravest of issues of life in the 21st century. One slim stick of factory cracker, even if it is “Nueva Formula! Ahora con 10% Aceite de Oliva!,” is somewhat less momentous than, say, global climate change or child poverty. Still. I look at D chidingly but gently, and ask, “Can you give your brother a bread stick?”
D: (a bit hotly) Fine. Take three!
And that’s when I lose it. You see, this is an ongoing thing, and his brother does it too, so this has been building for some time.
Me: (voice rising) He’s not asking for three, he’s asking for one. Why do you always play the martyr? Why is it always all or nothing? (walking over and examining the packet of bread sticks) There are 5 in here. Why would you give him the majority of them? All I’m asking is for you to share one friggin bread stick, and you immediately go overboard and act like some peevish and put-upon saint. (flopping arms around, mockingly) Just take them all! If I have to share, at least I can look like a victim while I’m doing it.
And that’s when I notice the tears in D’s eyes. I feel like a bully and a shit. What could have been a simple, calm lesson on sharing has ended up with me acting like a thug. I know what to do. I know I should rewind and quietly explain that while it’s nice to share, it’s not nice to exaggerate the action, shortchange yourself, then pout about it. Which he, and his brother, do all the time.
But that’s not what I do. I go back to shooting baskets and toss away another opportunity to talk about this unfortunate affliction. But here’s the problem. I’m simply fed up with this particular form of self-abnegation, this pitiful self-pity. It’s been going on for far too long, and we’ve discussed it far too many times.
Let me give you another example, so as to be clear. This time it’s our youngest going all St. Stephen being stoned to death. The boys have come across one of those super-bouncy balls on the terrace. There’s only one ball but two boys and that’s causing friction. They begin to argue, and the tone of G’s voice takes on the soprano notes and long vowels of a burgeoning whine. I nip the whine in the bud and suggest that they share the ball, either by taking turns with it or finding a game they can both play.
G: (turning persecuted, disconsolate) D can have it, I won’t play with it at all.
Me: But you can both play with it.
G: No, it’s all for D. I don’t want it.
Me: But isn’t playing with the ball together, or half of the time, better than not at all?
G: D can have it, I don’t want it. (a low, ominous rumble of thunder in the distance, blood-red crosses flash in the background as the boy silently trudges away, going to offer himself up to be fed to the lions)
So what do you do? That’s not rhetorical – What do you do? Do your kids do this as well? When asked to share, do they leap to the opposite extreme with a sense of martyred self-denial? If so, what strategies do you use to curb this behavior? We’ve talked about it a gazillion times, but they just keep doing it. Over and over.
So, please share you thoughts, your methods, your actions, your answers. Because I don’t want to torment my kids again, but folks, this thing is making me thuggish.
“When you say ‘Yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘No’ to yourself.”
- Paulo Coehlo