My children squabble and maneuver endlessly, the background stress of my life. The other day I was at my limit, and I forbade my brilliant older child to say anything to the younger one which would make her cry. This sounds asinine and overly favoring of the little one, but indeed the older child took this as it was intended. She has an arsenal of carefully memorized statements which, when spoken, immediately cause the younger, thinner-skinned child to burst into tears. It's a pleasure for her to unleash these at brief intervals, but the maternal authority had to weigh in.
On another occasion, the elder child made up a vicious song about her sister, sung with a sweet, lilting voice. The younger child was beguiled by the melody and began singing her own song. A new rule was born: in my house, you can say any horrible insult you wish, so long as you sing it endearingly.
Likewise a mom friend of mine was recounting her insanely ambitious series of errands involving taking five assorted children to eight places. At one point in the saga, the children were sniping at each other verbally, but the repartee was clever, so even though one child was getting upset, the mother did not step in because the level of discourse was amusing to the bystander/driver. When the conversation devolved to unentertaining insults, the shut-down was enforced.
I suspect that we're breeding bitchy singers (Sandra Bernhards?) or snide comedians (a David Letterman, dare we dream?), rather than the next Miss Manners or Dalai Lama.
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