Jealousy. The green-headed monster. Riding the bitter train to Envy Town. The desire to possess what someone else possesses or garner the attention someone else has garnered is a totally natural, entirely ugly impulse.
I still remember crowding around a modest 20-inch television in the corner of our kitchen, the camcorder hooked up to the inputs, to watch a video of my older sister reading her winning entry for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest. Mom had tears in her eyes. Dad got nostalgic about his writing days in college. At school, they announced her name over the loudspeaker. She had a certificate with a gold seal on it, which made it worth a million dollars in my mind. I was in third grade, she was in fifth, and all of this was very much a big deal.
When I won the same contest two years later, it just wasn’t the same. The shine of victory had been dulled by repetition. There were no tears. Hell, i think we even skipped the banquet where the winners read their essays. It wasn’t the first time my sister did something ahead of me, better than me. But it was one of the first occasions I can recall vividly. That sting of a sibling outshining her housemates. The taste of ice cream in someone else’s honor.
Everybody has those memories! We’re born with comparison and competition coursing through our veins. I remember thinking the attention I received for my own accomplishments just wasn’t as significant as the embarrassing amount of praise my brother – the football player and only boy – or my sister – the equestrian with the shy disposition – got. Of course, their memories are likely skewed the other way. And, in hindsight, the truth is, we were all loved an appropriate amount for three children who experienced predominantly mild, occasionally notable success, and acted like jerks much of the time.
But see, the trick to that clarity rests in the hindsight. When you’re in it, you can’t see it through the green. These days, my view is from the other side of the fence. The parents’ side. And it ain’t pretty, folks.
Last week, Hank and I received an email from the principal at the girls’ school:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Spike’s Parents,
It is my pleasure to inform you that your kindergartener, Spike, will receive our Perfect Panda award for displaying this month’s life skill, integrity. Please join us at our school assembly to surprise your child and present her with her certificate on Tuesday, January 30.
I closed the email and immediately jumped on chat. He was already there …
Hank: Go Spikey!
Hank: JoJo’s gonna be pissed.
See, what you don’t know is that the school gives out these awards every month throughout the school year. And every month for the past 2.5 school years, our JoJo has come home with a sad, shattered spirit after learning she, once again, was not named a Perfect Panda. Spike, as the universe would have it, came in and cleared one just five months into her academic career. That burns a bit on the way down.
This was tricky. As the parent, you certainly don’t want to detract from one child’s accomplishment. But when you have an emotionally fragile child, you don’t want them spiraling, either. What to do … What to do …
I took every opportunity to initiate damage control early. For instance, when JoJo scored in her game Saturday, but Spike did not, I was quick to point out that Spike cheered for her big sis even though she didn’t get a bucket earlier in the day. JoJo nodded and smiled at her sister across the backseat. Then returned to her pack of Oreos. (Quick side note: What the hell is going on with the snacks at youth sporting events guys?)
Then I turned things up a notch. It was Sunday morning and all three of the chicks were tearing each other apart. I hit that boiling point that all parents hit after so many consecutive minutes of tattling and whining and sister-on-sister hate hitting.
“Go get your sisters and get in here!” I spewed to Spike.
[The three girls filed in, noses to the floor, and sat down in a row.]
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t care.”
“Here’s the thing, ladies” I began. “We are a tribe. The five of us. We don’t hurt each other. We don’t put each other down and we don’t touch each other out of hate. Over everyone else, we have each other’s backs. Do you understand?”
“Who knows what integrity is?” I asked. (Remember, Spike didn’t know she was getting the Perfect Panda award yet. Pop quiz, suckers.) JoJo raised her hand.
“OK, what is it?” I prompted.
“It’s how you follow the rules.”
“In a way. It’s also what people think of when they think of you as a person. So, let me ask you … What kind of person do you want people to think of when they think of you? You want them to think you are a _____ girl.”
“Brave and kind,” JoJo said.
“OK, brave and kind. Good. Do you think a brave girl calls her sister stupid?”
“Do you think a kind girl calls her sister stupid?”
“How about you?” I asked, pointing to Spike.
“Kind and does the right thing.”
“Great. Does a kind girl say she hates someone?”
“Is telling someone you hate them doing the right thing?”
“And you, Sloppy Joan. What kind of girl do you want to be?”
“A princess girl.”
“K. Do you think a princess gets to be mean to people?”
“No. She doesn’t! So, here’s the bottom line. Stop before you say and do things and ask yourself if a brave girl would do that, or a kind girl would say that. Got it?”
They gave a collective, half-hearted yes, but I wouldn’t be satisfied until they gave each other the obligatory forced group hug. I made ‘em hold it, too.
(Happy byproduct of this fairly typical Come-to-Jesus exchange, it had never occurred to me before that moment to ask them what kind of person they wanted to be. I’d always just told them what kind of person they should be. It was interesting and worth revisiting.)
The momentum from the atta-boy lasted into the evening. They even had a party to celebrate each other, including Hershey kisses on toothpicks and glow rings strung together to form a disco light. I felt like Carol F-ing Brady. I was riding a high, though history told me it was temporary. I even convinced myself that JoJo might just surprise us, I truly believed it. I wanted to believe it.
One Manic Monday later, the day of the ceremony arrived. At 1:50 p.m., we sat waiting in a room adjacent to the gymnasium while all the students got settled into the bleachers. We lined up outside the doors. Two children from each grade would be recognized, and, of course, kindergarteners would go first. I was fidgeting. “Calm down, mama,” Hank warned.
Then he turned to the roars of cheering and applause coming from the gym. “Man, the principal is like a rock god. I wonder if he goes home and tells his wife he totally killed it.” It was true. The dude was absolutely slaying the 5-11-year-old demographic. Every punchline landed.
“And February 12 is Mooooovie Night!” [roaring applause]
“Don’t forget we’re collecting Box Tooooops!” [cheers and high fives]
“And on March 1, the middle school orchestra is cominggggg!” [losing their minds completely]
Then it was time. “Alright, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. We’re going to honor our Perfect Pandas now. These students demonstrated integrity in their classrooms during the months of December and January. Let’s start with kindergarten … Spike! Come down and receive your award from a surprise guest!” Out we walked, to a sea of tiny smiling faces and frantically clapping hands.
Our girl was waiting at the bottom of the steps, wearing the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and nutella remnants on her cheeks. We leaned down, hugged her and took our place on the red line, facing the crowd.
“I don’t see her,” I said, through my teeth, scanning for JoJo. “Do you?”
“Oh, there’s her teacher.”
“Op, there she is.”
“She’s definitely crying.”
“Oh, she’s losin’ it.”
We kept smiling. Everything’s good here. Nothing to see. It’s all happy joyful love in our house.
Once they’d made their way through the fifth graders with integrity, we took a seat to watch the rest of the program. Jon Bon Jovi came back to the mic. “Now, to introduce our new life skill, respect, here is the entire second grade class.” Ohhhhhhh shoot … I had completely forgotten about the song! JoJo had to come down and sing in front of everyone! She’d mentioned it this morning. The only question now was, could she rally?
With her fingers firmly in her mouth and cherry juice-colored tear tracks down her cheeks, my eldest daughter stood in front of the entire student body and barely mumbled through “It’s about respect, check it out, check it out.” . Her eyes were locked on us, her trader parents and her award-winning little sister. I gave her the best thumb’s up I could muster. Hell, I even shoulder shimmied a little to try and hypeman our way through this nightmare. Nope.
When the program finally came to a close, we walked to the group of second graders. As I approached JoJo, her teacher stopped me.
“She was already having a bad day,” he warned. “Then she took this pretty hard. I think it sent her over the edge.”
“We anticipated that. Thank you.”
He’d barely walked away when I felt her bury her hot crying face in my thigh.
“Hey, JoJo! You sang so well!” I lied.
“It’s no fair that Spikey got a Perfect Panda,” she said, putting all her cards right down on the table.
“We’ll talk about it when we get home,” Hank said.
But the torture wouldn’t stop there. JoJo stood and looked on as Spike posed for group photos, then parent pictures, and then one with the rockstar himself. It was almost too much for one girl to take. How do those Oscar losers do it?
On our way back to the car, I hung back with my big girl. I put my finger under her chin and tilted her face up toward mine. I could see straight through her eyes down into her heavy heart.
“Hey you. I know this is hard, but it would mean so much to your sister if you told her you were proud of her.”
“OK, Mama,” she said.
“You don’t have to. But I know she wants to hear that from you.”
And that brave little girl, she did just that. She got the words out, whether she meant them or not, and I was proud of her. Really proud of her.
Of course by the time I got home that night, JoJo’s true fury over her sister’s recognition had boiled over and we were facing a full-blown hatefest. She didn’t want to see Spike’s certificate again. She didn’t care about the stuffed animal they gave her. She thought it was crap we were having dippy eggs and bacon for dinner just because Spike picked them. Why does she get everything? My third-grade self totally got it.
But I made the decision not to let jealousy hijack this moment for Spike. She’d earned that award. She was killin’ it in kindergarten and that was something to celebrate. So, as we all sat down to our sunny-side up entree, I raised my glass and asked everyone to join me in congratulating our Spikey on a job well done. No one took a knee. The tribe showed up.
Afterward, JoJo came into the basement with me so we could work out; beachbody and American Ninja Warrior training, respectively. As I got all my gear lined up, I decided to try to parent my way through this thing just one more time.
“JoJo, can I tell you something?”
“You love our family, right?”
“Well a family celebrates each other’s victories. They’re there for each other when someone is down, and they’re there for each other when someone is up. Today, it was your turn to celebrate your sister. And maybe tomorrow she’ll be celebrating you. It’s just the way it goes, honey. Try to remember that, OK?”
“Yeah, OK,” she said, before ninja kicking a tower of blocks across the room.
Sometimes I think parenting is like American Ninja Warrior. Maybe even harder. Obstacle after obstacle, with water hazards all over the damn place. You can strategize all you want, but odds are, that shit’s still gonna get ya.
When dealing with a sensitive soul, the big questions become: When do I shield? When do I step back? And when do I support as needed? My JoJo, with her tender skin, has some pretty rough days, but her sister winning an award for integrity just shouldn’t be one of them. A win for someone in our home should be a win for all of us.
One day, she’ll see that. When hindsight’s on her side.