Fiercely Possessive Kids
Technically, what's in Birdy's hands is a toy, but she's being about as playful as one of those Greek mythology girls who get changed forever into a marble stairway or a rocky outcropping. Birdy is squatting, grim-faced and immobile, with the toy car seat wedged into her lap. Seated inside is an enormous baby doll that's seen better days — one eye sticks shut and there's a dreadlocky tangle of stiff yellow hair. Birdy is not playing with this doll she found when we got here; my wary 2-year-old is too busy up in her imaginary crow's nest, keeping watch over it. Her stony silence is punctured only when she catches sight of her playdate toddling nearby. If he so much as exhales in her direction, Birdy screams "No!" and tightens her grip.
The afternoon passes. Birdy squats with the car seat while the playdate bangs exuberantly on a xylophone. She squats with the car seat while he sends farm animals down the conveyor belt of a pretend grocery-store checkout. When we turn on some Dan Zanes, she wags her hips gravely, but this solemn bouncing could hardly be called dancing. Now and then, the playdate scuttles past her like a worried crab, this or that toy concealed in his arms. Birdy is "playing" with him in the same way you might call what a guard does with the prisoners "hanging out."
At one point, I'm eating a piece of applesauce cake at the table and Birdy is tempted — "Cake!" she calls across the room to me — but not tempted enough to leave her car-seat vigil. She's still squatting with the doll, her face a pink, cherubic mask of gloom. I go over and bend down beside her. "Birdy, honey," I say, "I don't think you're really having fun with that doll." "Dolly!" she says back, although it sounds like DAW-yee. "I khev daw-yee." She could be a Russian immigrant hawking wares at a flea market. "Do you want to play?" I ask her, and she shakes her head, then adds, unconvincingly, "I am." "I don't think he's actually interested in that dolly," I offer, and gesture toward the busy playdate. But she shakes her head again and adds, even though this is his house: "Mine."
Birdy will cover your face and neck in kisses; her eyes go glossy with feeling at the sight of a newborn, a grandparent, or a photograph of a chick; she caresses pets so gently I'm never even certain if her palm is making contact with their fur. But sharing? "Mine," she says, reaching her hand into my blueberry container at the u-pick farm. "Mine," she says again, cramming a handful of plump berries into her mouth. "My booberries," she slurs through her mouthful of berry flesh and purple teeth. "Would you like some?" I ask her, as sweet and mild as pie. "Please help yourself, Birdy. I'm happy to share my berries with you." But my good role modeling doesn't take: A minute later I hear her again, two rows of bushes away, shrieking, "Mine! Mine!" and then her 5-year-old brother, Ben, as patient as an old sheepdog, is explaining, "No, Birdy. These are mine. You can have some, but you already ate all of yours." It's true. Birdy's container holds a rattling green berry or two. "Would you yike one?" she asks in a generous falsetto, holding the green berries out to me like a plate of canapés before grabbing them up in a fist and swallowing them. "Mine."
At the zoo, I have watched as one young chimp snatched a tangerine from another and popped it into his screaming, triumphant mouth. I imagine the first people on earth were the same: one cave toddler seizing another's mammoth-skin teddy bear, while the weary cave parents try the same necessary-but-pathetic tactics we try — "What if you two take turns?" Like us, the cave dwellers likely discovered the problem with this: Although taking turns oers a concrete yours-mine rhythm that may be easier to grasp than the abstract free-for-all of sharing, it still requires, well, sharing.
"My turn!" Birdy announces to Ben while she stands on the little wooden slide in our living room, planting her sticky feet on its slope like a defiant surfer. Then she cries, "Your turn, Benny!" but without moving. Then: "My turn again!" Ben rolls his eyes and wanders back to his watercolor painting. But later, when Birdy climbs into my lap and says, "My mama!" he takes the bait. "My mama," he says back, squeezing himself in beside her. And it occurs to me that, for siblings, this is the primal sharing scene: the divvying up of parental resources.
Ben was neither fierce nor grabby as a toddler, though he did experience his own interlude of hoarding. I can picture him sitting with a shoebox full of little cars. But now Ben is in the opposite phase: It seems that he can enjoy something only if he shares it. "Want a bite?" he says, pushing his waffle, his pilgrim-shaped maple candy, his spoonful of rice pudding into my face. "Hmm? Want a bite? Try it." "No, thank you" is not an acceptable answer. "Try it. This is your last chance. Mama, eat this." It's oddly annoying (though nothing you could exactly complain about — "God, my kid can't stop sharing!"). But I understand it, this drive to share your experience of the world.
One of my earliest memories is of my father requesting a taste of my cone outside Poor Richard's soft-serve ice cream stand in upstate New York. After I refused, he turned and asked my older brother, who said, "Sure!" and then added, as my dad bit into Rob's vanilla swirl, "Isn't it so good?" My dad said, "Delicious!" and they practically high-fived each other there in the parking lot while my black raspberry dripped, unshared, onto the asphalt. It was a quiet lesson, but so penetrating. "How's yours, sweetie?" my dad asked me, and when I said, "Okay," the word felt cold in my throat.
And that was the real lesson. You don't share just to be nice, or because you feel ashamed when you don't, or because it's good karma and you might want an ice cream taste yourself one day, although these are all good reasons. You share because it connects you to other people. Because it makes you less lonely. I think of this when the playdate finally stops trying to approach Birdy and I see her, still squatting there with her hard-won treasure, look after him longingly. When it's time to go, I worry there will be tears over the left-behind dolly, but Birdy kisses it once, passionately, on the cheek, then hands it to her bewildered friend, who smiles and says, "Sanks." Minutes later Birdy announces, from her car seat, "I had such a good, good time!" "Really?" I ask. When I look in the rearview mirror, Birdy is nodding and smiling. "I did," she says. "I shared."