The storm gathered upstairs while I sat reading the paper. It began as a rumbling confusion of voices, suddenly punctuated by a gruff, insistent, “GET OUTTA HERE!” Then came a piercing screech. Another who-done-it was unfolding at the Rosemond’s.
“Daddy!” It was Eric, then 12 years old, calling from the top of the stairs. I kept reading.
“Eric?” The sound of his name brings him thundering down the stairs, an avalanche of indignation.
“Dad, Wayne and I want to play in my room and Amy won’t leave us alone.”
“Oh really? I’m reading the paper here on the sofa.”
“DAD! She’s messing everything up and we can’t play!”
“Will you tell her to leave so Wayne and I can play?”
“No, I won’t.”
“You know why not, but if you want to hear it again,” (deep breath) “I’m not a referee. The two of you can work these things out without my help.”
“Alright then, can I drag her out and lock the door?”
“You know the rule for fighting in our house – nobody gets hurt. And keep Wayne out of it.”
“I won’t hurt her, but can I lock her out?”
“I’m not going to tell you what to do.”
“Okay. I’m gonna ask her one more time, and then I’m throwing her out and locking the door.”
“Remember the rule.”
Dramatic about face and exit, stage left. A few moments later, I hear the unmistakable racket of a body being dragged, kicking, across the floor and dumped in the hall. Slam! Little fists pummel the door… “LET ME IN! I HATE YOU! YOU’RE THE WORST BROTHER IN THE WORLD!” Then, down the stairs she flies, the one-and-only, Amy the Screech. “Daddy!”
“Eric pushed me out of his room,” (here comes the crocodile tears) “and LOCKED THE DOOR!”
“Oh really?” I’m reading the paper.”
It’s the same message I’d been giving them for years – Daddy will not referee their fights or judge who was “right” and who was “wrong.” Despite my refusal to intervene, they still occasionally ask, and I expect the invitation.
I never appreciated the meaning of “it takes two to tango” until Eric and Amy began “dancing” with each other. In fact, this particular tango was probably the inevitable consequence of having more than one child in the family.
It takes the better part of childhood for children to learn the art of getting along. While they may need a coach occasionally, it is generally best for adults to maintain a respectable distance from the dance. It takes two to tango and a third to get tangled.
Children have a talent for turning what could have been a simple exercise in learning how to live together into a melodrama. Someone is the villain. Someone else is the victim – oppressed, downtrodden and certain to evoke lots of sympathy. We adults are generally typecast as a cross between the Pope and the Secretary of State. It’s a generous offer, which I always refused. But they kept offering, because as often as they tangled, the trivial became the grandiose, and another melodrama began.
I suppose that transforming real people into two-dimensional stereotypes makes their conflicts seem less threatening, less personal and therefore less enduring. That may have something to do with the way children are able to forgive and forget so easily.
Ah-ha! The trick of growing up involves learning to keep conflict personal, and still being able to forgive and learn to rather than forget.
I stayed out of their conflicts because I trusted them to work things out for themselves. I stayed out because any solution they devised was more valuable and enduring than one I imposed on them. I stayed out because I didn’t want them growing up to believe in melodrama. I stayed out because I wanted them growing out of their stereotypes, not into them.
Meanwhile, I kept waiting for the last tango.