Caution: Children At Play

I was an only child and I hated it. Actually I hated it. Even though I probably got more in the way of experiences (like getting to go on vacation in places like England and Ireland) and toys (although not some of the ones I wanted most), I still hated it. I was lonely a lot of the time. My dad developed Parkinson’s disease when he was fairly young (he was 32, I was 2), and my mom ended up having to work to support us. She worked long hours, he wasn’t always mobile or feeling well, so I ended up on my own a lot. I used to long for someone to play with. I knew kids with siblings, and I knew their relationships with them weren’t always Connect Four championships and let’s play pretend, but there were times when they played nicely together, and I envied them those times. As a result, I swore I’d never have an only child, and I have four that are all fairly close together (the widest gap is four years, between the oldest and the youngest). Now I expect them to play together, and sometimes they even do. And when they do, I’ve noticed that they go through an interesting series of phases.
Phase 1: "There’s No One To Play With!"
This one always gets me. Dude. I endured three pregnancies just so I would never have to hear anyone say that. Morning sickness, the world’s itchiest fucking stretch marks, and feet that got just big enough that my kick ass cowboy boots I’d had since college didn’t fit anymore. All so you would never know the feeling of being lonely, and wanting the companionship of someone your own age on a rainy day when there seemed to be nothing to do. There are three other children in this household. Go find one of them and engage him or her in play. Because guess what? I am not going to play with you. Not Clue, not War, not Monopoly. Go find a sibling and ask them to play Clue or War or Monopoly with you. There’s no one to play with, my ass.  And no, you may not watch TV.
Phase 2: "UGGGGGHHHH I Don’t Want To Play With My Brother"
Yeah, see above. This gets a pretty high rating on my Tough Shit-O-Meter. Go find him and STFU. Of course, this is the phase that includes the most declarations that there’s nothing to do, and that they are so booooooooorrrrrred. They are never amused to hear my stories about being an only child and not even having anyone to not want to play with. It’s usually these stories that drive them away and push them into the next phase.  
Phase 3: The Picking Stage
Having been thrown together in an unwelcome partnership, one child decides that, fine, I will amuse myself with this sibling. He generally begins by picking at, pestering, or otherwise bugging the child he’s been sent to play with. (I’m using the male pronoun across the board here, because with three boys and a girl, in every combination of my children, at least one of them has to be a boy.)  It might be toy taking, teasing, or poking/prodding type behavior, but whatever it is, it causes the other child to become highly agitated. It’s not quite what I had in mind, but it occupies one of them. The other one spends the whole time yelling “STOOOOOOPPPPPPPUUUUUHHHHH!” This phase lasts for anywhere from ten minutes to forever.
Phase 4: The Playing Stage
At some point, they make a peace of sorts, and work out an activity that’s amenable to both parties. Lots of times the poking/prodding behavior becomes more mutual, and they end up in wrestling matches, usually in my living room. This does not thrill me for many reasons—the fireplace/hearth in the living room being a perfect surface for head smashing, the lamps being perfect for knocking over and breaking, the fact that they’re so fucking loud about it—and I end up banishing them to the basement or outside. Still, playing is playing and I am grateful for the consensual interaction. The only downside is that this phase has an uncertain duration. They may play together nicely for an hour or more. Or it may last only six minutes. In either case, it’s inevitably followed by…
Phase 5: The Attempted Murder Stage
Sooner or later, someone takes a liberty in the game. Someone oversteps their bounds, usually physically. These are boys (and one girl with three older brothers) after all—it’s almost always a push or a shove or a trip or some other form of perceived physical abuse. The victim always swears it was, “on purpose!” and, “for no reason whatsoever!” the abuser always claims repeatedly that it was, “on accident!” Either way, the victim inevitably accuses his sibling of trying to kill him. Oh yes, that’s right—he was hoping that he’d step on your foot, injure a toenail that would become infected, and cause your death by sepsis. Give me a fucking break. I’d say 90% of the time, the initial injury inflicted is in fact an accident. It’s a seven- or nine- or eleven-year-old who gets too enthusiastic in his play and accidently hurts the other person. But that doesn’t stop them from moving to the next phase.
Phase 6: The Revenge + Tattling Phase
Now that one person feels they’ve been abused, the gloves are off. They do what they can to harm one another, each feeling that they’re entitled to retribution for the wrongs done them by the other. They never try to hurt each other seriously (I would assume if they really wanted to cause serious harm that they’d just beat each other with one of our many baseball bats). It’s always small, stupid things. But with each offense comes a tattle. “He hit me!” “He threw the airplane right at my face!” “She pushed me off the chair!” Oh for fuck’s sake. My reaction to this is usually to dismiss them initially, then when they start getting to a point when they’re mad enough that they might genuinely hurt one another, I’m forced to separate them. And so, we transition to another phase.
Phase 7: The Time Out Stage
Usually they get sent to their room in an effort to put an end to Phase 6. It’s not really intended as a time out per se, because a time out in my mind implies a disciplinary measure that forces them to stop everything, sit quietly, and reflect on their choices. Sending them to their room—where, yes, they have toys and books and other amusements—is intended only to redirect them, and physically distance them from one another. Sometimes the tactic will be dividing the four of them among the two parents, separating the most recently acrimonious pair. My husband will take two of them to Home Depot, for instance, and I’ll take two of them to the library. Either way, they find a new focus, and are removed from the presence of the child with whom they were most recently doing battle, even if it’s for only a short time. Eventually the time out or errand comes to an end, and they are once again drifting through the kitchen, pestering me while I’m trying to do important things (like write a goddamned blog post, for the love of biscuits) and they start all over again.
“There’s no one to play with!”
Fuck. Me.

Note: I do play with them sometimes, of course. It’s not that I don’t want to interact with my children. But roughly half the times when they ask me to play, I genuinely can’t because some chore or task that is integral to keeping our household functioning requires my attention.


michelle said...


I had my boys 11 years apart and they STILL managed to fight with each other.

Tracy said...

They drive me INSANE with the fighting! And since I was an only child, I have no clue how to handle it, other than to separate them. ARGH.