September 25, 2010 at 8:36 am 1 comment

There’s a sheet of paper floating around the house right now. Scrawled in Bella’s nine-year old print, is:

“Special Club Members”

Bella: Club Leader

Xi: Tracker

Echo: Assistant

Doesn’t that sound about right as far as classic family dynamics go? Bella, the oldest, of course would not only come up with the idea of a club, but would also designate herself as the highest officer in the land. Next in line? The middle child, offered a post that indicates a modicum of involvement (as it turns out “tracker” is our girls’ version of secretary), without directly challenging the oldest sister’s superiority. And the little sister? Well of course she is given a role that satisfies her need for inclusion without offering any actual duties or tasks.

This hierarchy is kept in tact whether the game is Special Club, Gem Child, or Farm Game. Bella comes up with a stunning title and the most awesome character for herself, Xi complains of inequality, that Bella always gets the best name (Blue Star, Diamond Child, etc.), Bella concedes something slightly awesome to Xi, a title cool sounding enough to soothe Xi’s ego, and Echo flits about like a fruit fly, begging for recognition of any kind and then forgetting her role entirely. It’s like a template you could lift off at bedtime and then drag out again the next morning, to settle over the current fantasy scenario.

In fact this dynamic is so common at our house that yesterday when Papa was gearing up to pick up Bella for the weekend and Xi broke into tears we were outright flabbergasted. Xi, out of the blue, declared she was dreading Bella’s visit because in her mind Bella and Echo play all the time and leave her out. Nathan and I could barely pick our jaws off the floor. What?! We looked for clarification, peppering the middle child with questions. Are you serious? You really aren’t kidding? She was serious. Despite the fact that, by parental calculations, Xi and Bella spend approximately thirty consecutive hours each weekend, with heads bent, invisible strings of imagination binding them together, and eyes entirely blind to the rest of the world, Xi feels differently.

That’s the thing about life. To my great frustration, there is no official screenplay. There is only perception. Darn it all. Even though I know this, somewhere in my rational mind, I can’t help but drag out the dog-eared script, the thing I think must be the official version because it’s how I see it! I wanted to draw an illustration for Xi, two fused lumps representing her and her older sister, and a blurred orb circling around them representing Echo. I wanted to pull out graphs. I wanted her to see that what she was saying was pure lunacy. And we tried. At least a little. Reminding Xi that we, the parents, are almost constantly nudging the older girls to involve the little one, and if she conceded that fact then couldn’t she see that that meant she and Bella play together? A lot?

No, she couldn’t.

The basics of the situation were that a child was upset, and our usual response, at least our desired parental response during a moment like this, is to empathize. But it’s hard! When the feelings the kid is having simply do not make sense, it’s hard to find understanding, hard to dig up empathy. I become resistant, feeling like if I pat her back I will appear to agree with her perspective. If I wipe her tears I will be saying: You’re right honey. You ARE left out all the time. And she isn’t! Ever! But somehow we did it. We found empathy. In our minds we agreed to disagree and reminded ourselves that empathy is not agreement, it is simply acknowledgement.

Empathy is acknowledgement.

Empathy is only acknowledgement.

So we acknowledged.

You’re really sad. It’s upsetting to you to feel left out, even for a second. Yeah. Bella is important to you. You are so excited to see her and it’s hard when she pays attention to Echo huh?

And she felt better.

As we were hugging I remembered the family dynamic, the difficulty of the number three, everything I’ve read or heard about middle children, and my heart went out to the little pink-clad seven-year old. Nathan and I circled around her, smoothing her hair, squeezing her taut back, and said:

We love you so much. You are so important to this family.

Again and again.


Entry filed under: empathy. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Helen  |  September 26, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    This middle child thanks you both.

    Your children are so fortunate to have such evolved parents, the wisdom and strength to offer your daughter what she says she needs rather than what it appears to you that she needs. Amazing.


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