April 1, 2011
By Ekta R. Garg
Last week after school I had to stop at the grocery store, so I made the Herculean effort of strapping Four and Two in their car seats, driving the mile or so to the store, and then unstrapping them after we arrived. I unbuckled Two from her seat first and instructed her to get down but not go anywhere as I trotted around the car and to Four’s side. As I unbuckled Four, she tramped over her backpack and followed her little sister towards the van door.
“Don’t step on your backpack,” I said automatically.
And then I heard it: the response I didn’t think I would hear for at least five or ten more years.
“It’s my backpack, I can do whatever I want with it.”
I felt a jolt. Did she really just say that?
To her credit, Four said it pretty casually, tossing the comment over her shoulder almost as an afterthought. She didn’t say it in a combative way, which was nice. When I’ve envisioned the “it’s my [insert object here], I can do whatever I want with it” conversation, I’ve imagined my reprimand inciting an explosion of gargantuan, teenage proportions. So I’m fortunate that she didn’t fight me on it.
I trotted back around to where both kids were now standing. “Hold on a minute,” I said.
I explained to her that technically nothing in our house was only “hers.” It’s something we’re trying to instill in the kids as they get older: that all the items in our home belong to the entire family. We also use this tactic in trying to get the girls to share. The idea is that if something belongs to everyone (and not just one person,) then not only is everyone allowed to use it but also everyone is responsible for making sure that item gets taken care of.
Admittedly this theory gets a little tricky when we’re separating items for a certain purpose: “Pick up your books, please” or “Don’t step on your backpack,” but the kids seem to get what we’re trying to teach them. They don’t like it, but they get it.
If everything in the house was “ours,” then she was responsible for taking care of it. That meant she needed to make sure she shouldn’t step on the backpack because it could get dirty and ruined in some way.
“We could always go buy another one,” Four said.
Oh, the freedom of capitalism! Somehow, kids seem to pick up on this idea pretty quickly: items are readily available in the market for purchase. And, again, we’ve often used this tactic ourselves. If something runs out (like a favorite snack item) and one of the kids fusses that she wants it now I respond, “It’s finished, but I’ll get more when I go to Walmart next time.”
But how do you make a four-year-old or a two-year-old understand that just because something is available doesn’t mean we need or are able to buy it?
I told Four that no, we couldn’t go buy another one. That privilege was reserved for when we really needed something. If she made bad choices and ruined her backpack because she decided to be careless with it, then I didn’t have money to replace the backpack. Her father works hard for the money we have, I reminded her, and we couldn’t just go spending it at will.
“Okay,” she said with that familiar tone of acquiescence—something between a groan and a sigh.
Her comment about being able to do whatever she wanted with her backpack had stunned me. There are days I have to concentrate hard to remind myself my elder daughter really is only four. Often she’ll make statements like these that sound more suited for an older mouth, a taller person. As we made our way through the grocery store, one corner of my brain worked overtime to figure out where on earth Four could have heard such a statement. My husband and I don’t say things like that—at least not seriously. One of us may have said it in jest, but Four is smart enough to know when we’re being silly and when we really mean something…right?
I’m not sure where she heard it, but she took my explanation to the contrary pretty well. I can only hope that if she says those words again sometime in the years to come (like when she’s really a teenager,) we can smooth out the entire situation just as well as we did this time around.