R-O-A-R! You growl, a ferocious frown on your face, your expression fierce, your fingers imitating claws, as you advance menacingly towards your child. She shrieks and runs away, and you give chase to capture her. Once you capture her, you can imprison her in your arms, or ‘eat her up’.
As you keep playing, one fine day, instead of running away, she will retaliate. She will glower at you, unsheathe her claws, and roar to frighten you out of your skin. You will drop your claws (and your false bravado! 🙂 ) and run for your life as she chases you. Eventually you will give up, and acknowledge her as big, powerful, scary, and the winner of the game – at which point, you will both collapse into giggles or into each other’s arms or both.
This is a game we have all played with our children, or will play in the future; if not this exact game, then some variation of it.
You are careful not to start playing this game too early in your child’s life. You want him to be accustomed to your presence, the varying expressions on your face, in your voice. Then, when he is comfortable, you can try some play-acting, ready to stop the game the moment you see the slightest sign that he is truly scared or uncomfortable.
As he gets used to the game, he actively asks to play this game; he wants you to frighten him, and devises strategies to deal with the threatening animal you turn into. There comes a time when you realize that there are overtones of real menace in his play-acting. He really wants to win.
He is now old enough to understand competition, no longer worships the ground you walk on, and wants to exert the force of his personality, the force of his SELF. So he really tries to scare you; his punches and kicks hit hard enough to hurt, and he’s putting all his might into getting the better of you. This is true, whether your child is a boy or girl. This is true whether you are the mother or the father.
At some level, you both realize this is a game. Neither of you is a predator, and neither of you is prey. But it has stopped being a game. Your child is actively pitting herself against you, and is straining with all her might to win – more accurately, to defeat you. It is only one of the ways in which she is trying to assert her independence, her identity as a person separate from you.
But it is still only a game, and a harmless one, at that.
Recently, I happened to have meetings very close to my daughter’s school. The meetings would get over about the time school lets out, and I was contemplating whether or not it was a good idea for me to collect her from school so we could have a day out in town. (My picking her up is a sort of treat for both of us, since it happens so rarely.) After thinking it through and talking it over with her, I decided against picking her up. She should take the bus home, and I’d drive home as and when my work got done.
“But why can’t you pick me up? You haven’t done it even once this academic year!” (And the year was almost halfway through then.)
I told her it was not convenient – I wanted the flexibility to get other work done, if I could manage it.
But she’d set her heart on my picking her up. “I so rarely ask you to get me from school. And now that I’m asking, your work – which is not even set up yet! – is more important than your picking me up! If you really loved me, you’d pick me up from school tomorrow.”
Right then and there, I dropped what I was doing, and asked her to follow me into her room. “What did you just say?” I asked her, in a no-nonsense tone I rarely use (even more effective because it is softly spoken 🙂 ).
She stumbled over the words as she repeated them, her eyes glued to my face.
“What do you mean by saying that?” I asked her.
No answer. She’s still looking at me, as if I were a cobra about to bury my fangs into her.
“Listen to me, and listen carefully, because I will not say this again. Are you listening?”
“Okay. My picking you up or not, from school or wherever, tomorrow or on any other day, when you are 12 or 22 or 42 or 62, does not say anything about whether I love you or not. Have you understood that?”
She nods again.
“Did you really think that if I didn’t pick you up it would mean that I don’t love you?”
A nervous shake of the head. I waited. She said, “No, I didn’t really think that. I mean, I don’t think that.”
“Then why did you say it?” I persisted.
“Just like that,” she said. I waited.
“I said it because I thought if I said it, you would pick me up from school tomorrow.”
That is when I relaxed, and became my ‘normal’ self again.
“This kind of behavior is called playing games”, I explained to her, “and these are not good games to play. They mess with your head and my head and make us unhappy and suspicious. These games put poison in our heads and our hearts and make us destroy the love and happiness we have – inside ourselves, as well as what we share with each other. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, I do.”
“You and I have never played these games with each other, and I don’t want us to start now. Yell at me, shout, throw a tantrum – whatever, but don’t play games with me. I’d say don’t play them with anyone, ever, but definitely do not play them with me, because I won’t let you. If ever you try such a thing with me, I will point it out and stop the ‘game’ immediately – because I’m not interested in playing these games – with you or with anyone else. I’ve played them in the past, and they are not my cup of tea. You can play them if you want, but not with me. Get it?”
“Yes, Ma. I’m sorry,” she came to hug me.
A really lovely hug followed. 🙂
“You don’t need to be sorry. I’m glad it came up, because at least now, you know the kind of games that people play with each other, and how meaningless they are, and what kind of harm they can do.”
Yes, we made it over a big speed bump that day, my daughter and I.
Your child may start such a game, and you may let him get away with it, till the game is on autopilot, and your relationship has deteriorated. Worse, you may be playing such games with your child (“Won’t you do this for me, please?” “It will make me so happy.” “You did as I asked? You are a ‘good’ boy!”), till one day you look at the tatters of your relationship and wonder what happened.
You know, don’t you, that this is a game that nobody wins – because nobody can win it. All you can do is lose. And you do.
Take a good, hard look at the games you play with your child. Then dismantle them – right away. What you have with your child is too precious to be lost to a game.