Bright sunlight splashed through my son’s bedroom window on New Year’s Day – a rare and welcome visitor to begin 2011 in Northeast Ohio.
The unseasonably warm air had melted the vast majority of what was left of our white Christmas, and had thrown a monkey wrench into our plans to go sledding. I peered out the window, not so much to see the green-brown-grey mush of my backyard, but to absorb the warmth of the sun and remind myself that Spring wasn’t ridiculously far away.
The rays beaming through Cole’s window illuminated one of his most prized Christmas gifts: a miniature, play-sized workbench, complete with plastic tools, nuts, bolts, screws and even tiny boards of faux lumber. I watched him at play: his hands became steadier, more confident, with each successful turn of the screwdriver. He glanced up at me, a warm smile spreading across his four-year old face.
My eldest daughter, six-year old Carter, entered the room and asked with precocious curiosity, “So what project are you working on, Cole?” Cole was dumbstruck by the question – Carter expressing an interest in what he was doing was a rare occurrence, particularly in contrast to the regularity with which Cole intervened in his idol’s business. I came to his aid, and noticing the planks of lumber strewn across the floor, replied “We’re going to build a birdhouse. Want to help?”
And so Operation Birdhouse began in earnest, with Carter naturally assuming the role of job foreman. She immediately began putting pieces together, her long, almost spindly fingers whizzing furiously about the nuts, bolts and screws. Cole also made a contribution: one screw that took entirely too long to turn – at least in the foreman’s opinion.
A few seconds after Cole had completed his task, Carter snatched the junior Black & Decker instrument from his hands, and informed him that she would finish the job herself. I absorbed this exchange in silence. My momentary parental pride over the loving cooperation between my children working toward a common goal had been dashed, and it was a matter of seconds before the tears would arrive.
They arrived with a sad but unmistakable fury.
“Get out, Carter!” was all Cole could manage to spew from his mouth before he was fully overcome by a fit of crying. I leapt from my perch above the work area, and instructed Carter to exit the room in hopes of defusing the emotional outburst before it flared totally out of control. (I have found that separation of the parties is often the only effective policy in these circumstances, no matter how much daddy would like his darlings to work out their differences on their own).
Carter darted through the door leading to their shared bathroom, then shut her own door with a thud. I told Cole to sit still (fat chance) while I went to engage in a teaching moment with Carter. I found her lying on her bed, more relaxed than I had hoped she’d be. Recently she had made too much a habit of nonchalantly antagonizing Cole, leaving him to stew in a seething brew of emotions while she skipped lightly on her way.
I said nothing. I gave her my “disappointed” look, coupled with a forlorn shake of my head. “But he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Carter protested. I searched for a response, but before I could utter one, the door flew open. Cole was standing there, holding the half-built birdhouse in one hand, the screwdriver in the other.
“I have something to say,” he began, and with that, he laid the birdhouse and the tool gently on the floor. Then he turned his palms up, shrugged his shoulders, and bolted from the room, crying again.
As Carter began again with her assembly of the birdhouse, I tracked Cole down in my youngest daughter’s room across the hall. He was sobbing quietly. I approached him gingerly, unsure of how to best express my pride in his generosity and his ability to forgive his sister for her unkind behavior.
I went with an old standby: the big hug. He looked directly into my eyes, and as we locked gazes, I told him, “I am proud of you. Now let’s see how that birdhouse turns out.” He nodded, wiped away a few final tears, and we crossed the hall to find Carter putting the finishing touches on the birdhouse.
Seeking positive parental reinforcement, a treasure I believe all children value implicitly, she offered the birdhouse up to me. But I could not provide her with what she wanted. I wasn’t proud of her at that moment. And so I handed the birdhouse to Cole, the child who most deserved — and needed — praise.
He looked at the birdhouse quizzically, examined it for a few seconds, and then casually tossed it aside. The impact of its fall split the plastic structure in two. I expected Carter to cry bloody murder, and to attempt to use the birdhouse’s destruction as a means of deflecting my anger away from her, and toward Cole.
But Carter did nothing of the sort. Instead, she laughed and said, “It’s OK, Cole. I made the birdhouse for you anyway. If you don’t want it, I’m sure you can make something better out of it.”
Cole smiled at his older sister and said, “Thanks, Carter.”
I also thanked her – with a silent wink.