By Isabelle FitzGerald
“No sharing, Mama!”
My livid two-year-old swatted my hand, which hovered over his untouched supper, the meatballs I made growing cold and gray. My son clearly wasn’t hungry. I, however, was ravenous and could not stand to watch those delectable morsels of beef and oregano congealing on his plate.
Cooking together is the closest our family comes to having a ritual, and as soon as he was able, my son sifted flour for banana bread and scrubbed vegetables on his step stool next to the sink. Alas, he wanted to be in complete control of these tasks, but couldn’t be, a struggle that reached its apex whenever it was time to hand over the wooden spoon with which he stirred the soup or to relinquish the carrots he’d rinsed to the cutting board and my waiting knife.
“Mama taking my carrots,” he’d blubber. I explained that the carrots did not belong to him, that the sooner he gave them to me, the sooner he would eat them. Sometimes, he surrendered the vegetables; more often, I had to pry them from his angry fists, leading to the inevitable tantrum, to the occasional burnt meal, and to the unshakable sense I’d committed some injustice I could not place.
“Mine” was bound to be among his first words, according to the weekly parenting newsletter I subscribed to. The distinction between “you” and “me,” and therefore “yours” and “mine” was all part of my toddler navigating his newfound autonomy after the relentless dependency of being an infant. The experts promised that he’d outgrow this phase, eventually.
In the meantime, my son’s possessiveness intensified, expanded beyond the culinary realm. At his grandparents’ house, he prostrated himself and pounded his fists when his cousin touched the blocks he deemed were “his.” In the sandbox, he grew hysterical when the girl who owned the plastic bucket he’d been playing with came to collect her toy. “That bucket belongs to her,” I said. “See how nicely she was sharing?” He did not.
I tried positive reinforcement: I lavished him with praise on the rare occasion he offered me one of his playthings or a bite of his apple. I tried logic: if he wanted to play cars and trucks together, he needed to let me use at least one of his many miniature vehicles. No luck. Whenever I touched something that belonged to him, my otherwise cheerful child would detonate. My husband worried. I assured him this was normal toddler behavior, but I, too, began to wonder why our son’s reactions were so extreme.
One September afternoon, the three of us were in the car, stuck in traffic. It was hot. I was thirsty. My husband reached over the gearshift and swigged from my water bottle. I blew up. “That’s my water.”
From the backseat, our son listened. He’d overheard this fight before: my high-decibel freak out after my husband took a sip without asking and swallowed half the bottle’s contents in a single glug. To my husband, my fury over water theft seemed comically overblown. To me, it felt like he disregarded my boundaries, my basic needs. In eating from my son’s bowl, it seemed I’d picked up my husband’s same annoying habit.
A few weeks later, we sat down to dine at a restaurant. My stomach stabbed with hunger, and the stars of low blood sugar dazzled my eyes. The waiter brought our son’s food first, a hotdog with a heap of golden fries. I swiped one from his plate and stuffed it in my mouth, sweet ketchup-y relief. He howled. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked.
“Mama shared with me,” my son said.
My husband shot me a dirty look.
“Taking without permission isn’t sharing,” he said. “It’s stealing.”
Pot, kettle, black? I thought. Nonetheless, he was right.
Even infants know right from wrong.
A few years ago, a research team at Yale demonstrated this fact by putting on a puppet show for babies about a bunny struggling to remove a toy from a box. First, a “mean” puppet entered the stage and slammed the box shut. Then, a “nice” puppet appeared and helped the bunny get the toy. When asked which puppet they preferred, the babies reached for the “nice” puppet three times as often.
In a second experiment, the researchers put on a different show, three puppets rolling a ball between them. When the ball reached the bunny puppet, he took it and ran off. The researchers then performed the first show, the one about the bunny trying to get the toy from the box. This time round, the babies overwhelmingly preferred the puppet that slammed the lid shut. That larcenous rabbit deserved to be punished.
My son knew stealing was wrong without having a word for it, or worse, having the wrong word. Sharing.
That refrain from my childhood, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is as lazy a dictum as it is ineffective. My son reflects my actions, good and bad. I have sworn in front of him and later heard him parroting my blasphemes in his crib, testing inflections beginning with “F.” If my husband drinking my water drives me crazy, why would I expect my child to act – or to feel – any differently? Being his mother is as much about correcting my hypocrisies as it is about telling him how to behave.
Now that he knows the difference between sharing and stealing, he’s gotten better at the former with his playmates, if not with me. Maybe he still sees me as the thieving bunny, not to be trusted, not to be rewarded. I’m doing my best to lay off his dinner. When I forget, when my fingers sneak toward his neglected string beans, my son shouts, “No stealing!” He teaches me, little by little, how I ought to behave, too.
Isabelle FitzGerald studied creative writing at Brown University. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus and Yahoo! Parenting. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on her first novel.