This weekend, we visited friends who have two adorable kids--ages five and seven. I observed with interest that, every time the boys got crosswise with each other, the parents stepped in to mediate. Not one time in the four hours we were there were the children allowed to try to resolve their differences on their own. Moreover, our adult conversation was constantly interrupted when one or the other of the two boys screamed, "Mom!" and my friend leaped up to race down the hall and play peacemaker.
It reminded me of my own childhood because the age difference was identical to the one between my brother A and I.
Since the household of my youth was somewhat hectic, my brother and I were pretty much left to negotiate our own disagreements. We managed to work through our differences and, for the most part, got along fairly well.
When we were five and seven, our sister A was born. She didn't live long and, after her death, my mother's entire attention became focused on having another child--as though God owed her a baby. The doctors recommended that she wait at least three years before becoming pregnant again; she waited two.
I was not yet ten, and A was eight when our brother P was born. Never has a child been so anticipated. My parents, A, and I all doted on that baby. We spoiled him rotten and, in the process, created our own version of the demon seed.
By the time P was four, he was totally out of control. By then, A and I had seen the error of our ways. P thought nothing of walking up to us and kicking us viciously in the shins. If we tried to stop him, he would scream for our parents, yelling that we'd hurt him.
Mom and Dad had no sympathy to spare for us. After all, I was almost thirteen and A was eleven. P was only four. "He's just a baby," Mom would say. We were forbidden to lay a hand on him for any reason whatsoever.
Knowing this, P ran ragged over us. He stole things from our rooms, broke our most precious possessions and generally made himself as obnoxious as he could. He was, of course, looking for an adult to establish some boundaries, but my parents weren't in a position to do that.
I think if we had been allowed to negotiate our own relationship with him, A and I could have achieved some sort of detente with the brat. However, that wasn't to be . . . until one winter's day shortly after P turned four.
I had received a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas and had been working on it for weeks. It was something like 2,500 pieces. One afternoon, I finally put the last piece in. My sense of accomplishment was enormous, and I couldn't wait to tell my parents. I ran outside to find my mother.
When we returned, it was to find P standing over the broken pieces, grinning from ear to ear. He'd kicked my puzzle to smithereens.
My outrage and sense of injustice were monumental. Mom immediately went into her patented, "Oh, he's just a baby" mode, but I wasn't buying it. Knowing P wouldn't be punished, I stomped off to A's room where the two of us sat on the floor to discuss the situation. We agreed something had to be done, but couldn't immediately agree on a solution.
P had a teddy bear of which he was extremely fond. He called it "Grandpather," a combination of "Grandpa" and "Grandfather." A wanted to dismember the stuffed bear and dump its cotton entrails on P's bed. To him, that was Old Testament justice for my destroyed puzzle.
I knew that Mom and Dad would not see Grandpather's demise as "an eye for an eye." I wanted to punish P, but not demolish the kid or bring parental wrath down on our heads. That meant we were going to have to be more devious.
By dinnertime, we'd come up with a solution both of us could buy into. We put our plan in motion (literally) and slipped into our seats at the dining room table.
Supper was uneventful. Mom tried to make me feel better by telling Daddy I'd finished the puzzle I'd been working on for weeks. I told my father that Paul had kicked it to pieces. Daddy frowned, but Mom quickly changed the subject.
When we were excused from the table, A told P that he'd finished making the monster model he'd been working on. P ran toward the bedroom the two boys shared to see it. A and I followed on his heels.
P got there first, stood on tiptoes to turn on the overhead light and then let out a bloodcurdling scream.
The light illuminated the ceiling fan, which was now gently turning. Dangling from the fan by a belt tied around his neck was Grandpather. I was pretty pleased with the effect. The teddy bear looked like he'd committed suicide by hanging.
Daddy reached the room first. P was sobbing real tears and leaping into the air, trying to rescue Grandpather.
Mom arrived and stared in horrified fascination at the ceiling fan. As she turned to begin yelling at A and me, Daddy spoke. "Leave them alone." He reached up and unhooked Grandpather from the fan. Then he bent down and handed the bear to P. As my brother grabbed his stuffed animal, Daddy said to him, "The next time you think about touching your sister's things, remember this." He turned and left the room. Mom looked after him uncertainly and then followed.
A and I grinned at each other with what can only be described as unholy glee. We had a hostage bear! From that moment forward, whenever P stepped out of line, poor Grandpather got punched in his little round face, drop kicked across the room and swung by his legs.
Something else changed that night, too. Daddy began to hold P responsible for his behavior. Mom didn't like it, but she had other things on her mind. My youngest brother J was born soon afterward.
I'm happy to report that, by the time the new baby was crawling, P was almost civilized. And today he's one of my favorite people--thoughtful and caring. He also refuses to believe the horror stories A and I tell him about his childhood.
The lessons I learned? Don't let anyone get between you and the person with whom you're negotiating; it mucks the negotiation up. And, before starting a negotiation, always make sure you know what's important to your opponent.