It took all my patience not to shake Ellie today.
Olivia picked up Ellie’s abandoned, crumpled up, rainbow drawing from the breakfast table. Ellie idled in the adjacent seat, oblivious to Ollie’s impending infraction. They waited for breakfast.
Ellie recognized the piece of paper serving as Ollie’s foot scrubber, as the scribbled masterpiece she drew the day before. Ellie demanded it back.
“Ollie! No! That’s mine!” Ellie shrieked.
Ollie watched her with teasing eyes. The soles of her little feet kicked back and forth on the worn paper.
Ollie! No! I want that back! That’s my rainbow!” Ellie pleaded.
Ellie grabs for it.
Ollie’s short arms hold it out of reach
Ellie extents just enough to keep her from falling off her barstool and leaps for the paper. Failed again.
Olivia taunts her sister by shifting and keeping it out of reach. This struggle goes for seconds that felt like hours.
Ellie voice gets irritably high pitched, “Olivia, NOoo! Gimme that back! It’s miiiinne! It’s my rainbowww!”
At the stove, my back is turned to the squabble. God, It’s too early for this. I turned off the oatmeal and started dicing the apples–slooowly. Maybe if I pretend to be invisible long enough Ellie will just take the raggedy piece of paper back already! A gray hair unfurled from a pore on my scalp. I could feel it.
I’m ghost-like. Listening. A fly on the table with big bulging eyes wagging left, then right, as the girls contend back and forth:
Ellie: “give me my rainbow baaack!”
The tension in the room is as thick as a spoonful of peanut butter. The mommy-eye on the back of my neck could sense the twinkle in Ollie’s eye. The mischief. Her misguided delight. I could see the frustration she extracted from her big sister exhilarated her. Her demeanor was sadistic, really.
“Ollie, see what you did!!! NO! Don’t! You’re ripping iit!”
Anger oozed out of Ellie’s pores and a little cloud of smoke began to form over the breakfast table. Ellie waited for me to intervene.
I didn’t step in. Two more gray hairs sprouted on my scalp.
Ellie knows not to hit her sister. Ev and I find that negotiation, skilled reasoning, and the occasional empty threat is enough to get things moving. Naturally, we’ve insisted that Ellie employ the same tactics. Kids should be free to express anger, but not hit each other. Well, that’s what all my parenting books say, anyway. Besides, Olivia is too little to be punched around.
“Ollieee, you’re mean!, you’re not my sissy anymore!” Ellie’s loud, uneven wails escape between grunts, and pants. She’s fuming, but restrains her aggression that seems to be bubbling to the surface. Olivia was oblivious.
Olivia calls for me to look at Ellie, “Mommy, Eyyie cwy-ying…Eyyie cwying…,” she pointed out. At this point, I’m twitching. Trying not to whip my head around, and command Ellie to SNATCH the paper out of her little sister’s talons and silence the beast. Where’s your gutzpah?! Stick up for yourself, ELLIE!
Olivia’s keen eyes caught Ellie’s furious gaze, held it, then ripped the paper in half.
Hell’s gates opened up. Ellie lost it.
Ellie is wailing now. That deep rooted, pit-of-her-gut cry. The kind of cry that made me tear up a little too, on the insides. I felt for the kid. But her passiveness rattled my cage.
I know, I know, all you sane mothers out there would’ve intervened. Called it quits. Been the adult in the room. I’ll admit my reaction stems from a bit of history and a few skeletons. But I saw this as a learning moment for myself, and a teaching moment for Ellie.
First the history.
This very situation put me back in the mid 90s when my little brother would push my buttons and I would cry and mope because I hated how my little brother maliciously–and intentionally–(contrary to what my mother believed) did everything to frustrate me or get me in trouble. Yes, he was little and he knew he could get away with murder. Yet when I got angry or flicked his ears, or pinched him really hard–and he cried–I got the heat from mama bear.
Never mind that I was eight years older.
I was a sensitive spirit, and Hassan had baby muscles–and leg stilts–to reach the big red button on my forehead that read: “DO NOT PUSH!”
Ev isn’t sensitive, just non-confrontational 75% of the time. He told me about a time in middle school when his mom saw him getting being punked by another boy at the bus stop. She watched her son’s undignified situation unfold through their apartment kitchen window.
Evans restrained his fury (something he does annoyingly well) and ran home. His mom was at the front door. She told him–in Twi–to go back outside and not return until he whooped the bully’s butt. He did. And never got punked again.
If Rousseau was right about his philosophy on natural consequences then Ellie deserved to give her sister natural ass whooping.
I waited for Ellie to calm down. She was at the front door finger painting hearts on the glass storm door with the snot globbed around her nose.
“Ellie? I can see you’re upset.”
“Yes, Ollie was being mean and she ripped my paper,” she confided. “It made me very angry.”
“I understand.” The script I crammed into my brain from Siblings Without Rivalry, a parenting book I returned to the library a few weeks ago, escaped my memory. I drew blanks.
“Did crying get you the paper back?” I asked
“No!” She wailed
“Did asking nicely get you your belonging back?”
“No. I kept saying ‘please’ and she wouldn’t give it to me.” Tears streamed down her haggard face.
“Then, Ellie, the next time you do all those things first and she doesn’t give it back. Take it.”
She quizzed my face. It was soft, but a little tough around the edges.
“Okay, mommy,” she said with relief, and returned to her untouched breakfast.