Jealousy is an ugly beast. Seeing it transform your sweet, loving, happy children into lunatic hell-beasts with hate in their bowels has to be one of life’s more disturbing events.
Jealousy in my two kids manifests differently for each. For Jack, it’s a primal, base desire to just be where Joshua is, to do what he does, and — most frustrating for Joshua — to have what he has. Jack will commit every cell in his body, every impulse in his nervous system to obtaining whatever Joshua is playing with. There’s a glass-half-full part of me that finds it somewhat lovely that he wants so badly to be with his big brother. The same part argues that it is not jealousy (which might be too complex an emotion for his cognitive development to date), but a desire to emulate his favorite person. But that part is almost always beaten into mush by the glass-half-empty part of me that has to keep Jack from taking Joshua’s toys, or to keep him from eating chalk or crayons or butterfly knives* or whatever else he’s seen that he Must Have. Once I separate Jack from the object of his desire, I must also assume the role of comforter as his world has come to an end. His life, to the crushingly short event horizon of his perspective, is full of disappointment. He has no memory of past happiness, no expectation of future fulfillment. Instead, there is only the Now, and the Now sucks. Fortunately, he’s one year old and has the attention span of a crow, so distraction is a viable tactic.
Joshua’s jealousy is far uglier, mostly because it has grown in intensity and ability along with Joshua’s own development as a pre-person. Joshua, who’ll be five years old in about a month, takes a consuming interest in Jack’s doings, and especially with the things with which Jack’s doings do. The glass isn’t half-full of anything this time. No, this time it’s a full-bodied, passionate need to get whatever Jack’s found. Sometimes, this is a passing experience, as Joshua deems the item to be boring or un-worthy of his attention. Other times, however, he’ll aggressively pull the thing out of Jack’s paws for a personal examination. In the most extreme cases, he’ll try to claim it for himself. This recently occurred with a small train/track set that Jack got for Christmas. Keep in mind that Joshua has his own wooden train set, and even has access to an O-gauge model train that can be deployed in just a few minutes. Neither of these seems to match the allure of Jack’s plastic railway with its poorly fitting track pieces, weak magnetic couplers, and stiffly turning wheels. Because it’s new and Jack has it, Joshua wants it, and he wants it hard.
Distraction remains an option, but it’s a much harder maneuver to pull off. On more than one occasion, I’ve found Joshua in Jack’s room playing with Jack’s toys. So, we’ve instituted a rule that if Joshua plays with Jack’s things, Jack gets to play with Joshua’s. This goose/gander trade-off has almost totally curtailed Joshua’s behavior, if not his greedy appetite. I can tell this from the intensity of Joshua’s hawk-eyed gaze affixed to Jack’s things. Usually, he keeps it in check. Usually.
Because I’m often home with the boys by myself while Jen’s working, I am at a numerical disadvantage. I can use baby gates as a surrogate to keep Jack away from Joshua’s room or other places where one-year olds oughtn’t trod, but when Joshua wants to play in proximity to me, and when I of necessity must be in proximity to Jack, it’s like I’m just swinging dynamite and lit matches around my head.** Inevitably, one sees what the other has and KA-BOOM. There are tears, tantrums, and my own wistful glances at the bottle of Jim Beam that taunts me from a high shelf.
Of course, children are materialistic beasties. There is no transcending this. They seek immediate gratification, and the physical world — the one most concrete to both their comprehension and their realization — offers this in abundance. Waiting for something is a learned skill, acquired by practice rather than by divine gift. Nobody is born patient. Newborns and infants have needs that must be filled as soon as they’re felt. They don’t and can’t understand delaying their gratification, and neither is it especially healthy for them. As they move into toddlerhood and suddenly have access to the world quasi-independently of their caretakers, their previous expectations of instant fulfillment clash with their new reality of desires postponed. Transferring the latter to the former creates frustration and so they cry about stupid stuff. “Not yet” is indistinguishable from “not ever,” mostly because their conception of the future doesn’t extend more than a few minutes or hours or days. Understanding the psychology of it doesn’t make it any easier to handle when your one-year old is sobbing on the bathroom floor because you won’t let him play with your razor blades.
Seeing my two boys covet each others’ belongings has me about ready to make everything communal. Either that or let them fight it out in the Thunderdome***. Fortunately, Joshua’s interests are generally for higher-brow stuff than blocks and plastic train sets; you know, like stickers and stuff. And when Jack is older and they can both play together instead of near each other, tensions should ease a bit. They can take turns, play cooperatively, and so on. In the meantime, Mr. Beam and I will just have to keep postponing our date. Unlike my kids, I can wait.
*It’s never too early to train your children in the lethal art of the Filipino Balisong. It’s not like it’s that different from Karate. One breaks boards with your hand, the other slices people open from groin to gullet. You say potato, I say po-tah-to.
**Russian Roulette has nothing on Prospector Roulette.
***In the absence of a steel cage, I’ll probably just have them duke it out in the sandbox; best 2 out of 3 falls.