August 12, 2015
I was recently talking to a gal I’d just met, and she asked me if our girl gets along well with all the boys. “Yeeeeessss…?” I responded. She didn’t seem to detect the hesitation in my voice, and she smiled and said “oh, that’s good.” So sweet, so earnest, so very much how I used to be. I used to have a pretty simplified view of how fostering would play out. My naivete wasn’t to the point that I thought there would be NO relational issues, but I guess I always kinda assumed that, on the whole, love and friendship would win out. But you know what they say about assuming…It was hard to believe that a child as young as our girl could be so adept at generating conflict, that she would even seem to thrive on it. I realized that in talking to someone who is unfamiliar with our situation, I don’t even really know where to start, so in this case I mostly just smiled and nodded.
The thing is, I also can’t say “no, she doesn’t get along with them,” because that wouldn’t be an honest answer either. She loves the boys, and they love her, but it’s complicated. I wrote recently about my second oldest, and how far the two of them have come. She’s come a long way with all of them, and I hope to write about them each in turn. Today the honors go to my toddler, who will bear the pseudonym Jack-Jack. And yes, I’m referencing THAT Jack-Jack, the one of Pixar fame, youngest member of the Incredibles family. You see, MY Jack-Jack bears some similarities to that other Jack-Jack, most notably this: He is super cute except for when he unexpectedly BURSTS INTO FLAME.
He is two, and he acts two, but certain circumstances cause him to act a little more…two-ish. Having a new friend over, for instance. He’s comfortable with old friends, and he’s comfortable playing with other kids and other toys in other places, but if a new child comes to OUR home, he becomes violently possessive of every single toy on the premises.
“Did you touch my firetruck? No offense, but I’m going to scream in your face while I BURST INTO FLAME.”
“You’re playing with that LEGO mini-fig?????? I’m gonna punch you while I BURST INTO FLAME.”
“My blankie?! This is ALL OUT WAR, and it’s starting with me BURSTING INTO FLAME.”
You get the idea. He’s fine, until he isn’t. Unfortunately, there is a certain member of our family who likes to exploit this. On the surface, our girl seems to love drama, and an explosive toddler is an easy target. Our girl runs towards conflict, and I mean that almost literally. For example, if Jack-Jack decides to hit one of my older boys, they lean back and avoid it. Whether they realize it or not, moving away from him at those moments sends him the message that they don’t want to fight. If he decides he wants to hit our girl, she actually leans into it, gets hit, and furiously demands justice. We have watched this happen so many times, and it is bewildering. He hit her, and we have to deal with that. But she invited it, almost welcomed it. She wanted him to get in trouble and she wanted us to feel badly for her. Reasons abound why she might be doing this, but still, it’s weird.
Many mornings, Jack-Jack gets out of bed not quite ready for the day. He comes stumbling sleepily out of his room, and he needs a few minutes to really wake up. Our girl will get right up in his face and wish him good morning in a high chipper voice, and he will BURST INTO FLAME. And she looks up, astonished and hurt, and says she was only wanting to say good morning. And, to all appearances, this is true, and his reaction is super annoying. But this happens far too often, and she is far too smart, and she knows he’s going to freak out at her. He SHOULDN’T freak out, but he’s going to, and she knows it. She is the daring kid who pokes the sleeping bear (or the almost sleeping Jack-Jack), and the thrill she experiences when his anger ignites is almost visible.
This is such a tricky thing in terms of discipline. We have never let our kids blame others for their own misbehavior, and I often remind them that another person’s sin doesn’t justify theirs. I’m not about to change my tune for Jack-Jack, which means if he hits her, or screams at her when she says good morning, or yanks toys back from her when she has injected herself into a game he’s playing to “help” him, I’m not going to let him get away with it. He can’t hit her, he can’t scream at her, and he can’t steal toys away from her. But she is darn good at drawing those behaviors out of him, and I am torn between feeling frustrated, amused, and really, really sad.
It’s also tricky because, like it or not, she is a role model for him. When she came to our home she had to relinquish her position as baby of the family, and she took to that none too kindly. (Thanks a lot, birth-order psychology.) She could never articulate this, but I’m sure a part of her resents him for the simple fact that he’s younger than she is. I get it, though–most kids get nine months to prepare to be an older sibling. She didn’t get to prepare for anything, and was thrust into the role of being a big sister, with a younger child looking up to her. Anyway, regardless of the circumstances, the fact is that much of the time what she models for him is yelling, possessiveness, and anger. I realize it doesn’t take much for a two year old to seize onto these concepts, and we can never visit the parallel universe where he is growing up without her in his life, but I do wonder how much her own intensity rubs off on him. I wonder how much the heightened level of emotion currently in our house is shaping how he sees the world.
I also find myself wondering what’s going through his mind when she’s gone on weekends and I tell him she’s with her mom and dad. “Oh. Her mom and dad,” he says, with a knowing nod. But doesn’t he think we’re her family? Doesn’t he think I’m her mom, and Todd’s her dad? Is he deeply confused, or does he accept and understand the basics of the situation on some simple, fundamental level? I honestly don’t know. But then I think about her leaving us one day. My oldest two remember life before her, but Jack-Jack does not. She is part of our family, and if she disappears one day, is he going to wonder who’s next? Is he going to think that maybe one day we’ll send him packing? I wish I knew what was going through his little, flaming head.
Jack-Jack is at what I hope is the peak of his terrible twos, although when he’s not on fire he’s actually a delightful toddler. He’s funny and confident and affectionate, and he is crazy for sports, which is–surprisingly perhaps–a first in this family of boys. And he perceives our girl as a sister. Unlike those of us who are older, he knows nothing but having her in our lives, so there is more of an unconditional acceptance. And slowly, clumsily, imperfectly, she is trying to love him in healthy ways. She wants to mother him, but she is learning to come alongside him as a fellow child. She wants to dictate how he behaves, but she is learning to meet him where he’s at instead. She wants to make him BURST INTO FLAME (something about that phrase just screams for all caps), but she is learning to want to douse the fire instead.
That last one may be a struggle for her throughout her life. Every time we talk about it (Every.Time.), she says she doesn’t know how to seek peace instead of conflict. (Is this true? Does she actually need to hear a variety of answers and how-to-get-along strategies over and over again? Is it a cop-out? Another of the five bazillion things I don’t know.) And I remind her that Jesus didn’t come to save us once, but all day every day from our sin. I tell her that loving Jack-Jack probably is legitimately too hard for her to do on her own, but if she is filled up with Jesus’ love, she’ll have enough for him too. She learned Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Jack-Jack isn’t developmentally ready to really understand what choosing peace means, but he’s learning, and she’s realizing that in the meantime, if peace is to be had it might have to come from her.
Every time we cross the street or a parking lot, I ask Jack-Jack to hold someone’s hand. Our girl always wants it to be her, and he always refuses, flat-out, to hold her hand. I can’t explain to her in those moments that he won’t hold her hand because he doesn’t trust her to keep him safe, that she has to prove herself a safe and trustworthy person over and over before he’ll feel comfortable holding her hand. But every time she offers, and today, for the first time, he accepted, and they walked hand-in-hand to our destination. I had to choke back tears at this, the simplest of gestures, because it signifies so much. It’s a bumpy road for these two, but my hope is that they will both stop loving the fires of contention, and will grow to love the healing waters of peace.