“Well,” she says, her eyes guarded and her voice apologetic (something passive aggressive is coming), “Apparently Emma wanted to be queen, but Viola wouldn’t let her.”
I wait for her to make her point, the bad part where I learn my kid has done something terrible and I do something about it. But after a few seconds of silence, she looks at me expectantly and I realize that was her point, that was the bad part and I am supposed to go do something about it. These are the moments I feel like I must have missed a mom memo.
“So sorry,” I mumble, apologizing for my evil spawn. I walk back to the bedroom where they’re all playing. Maybe she was too embarrassed to tell me my daughter broke an heirloom or gouged out her daughter’s eye.
The scene I come upon is absurdly tragic and theatrically hilarious. Her daughter lays on the bed wailing soulfully, surrounded by her sister and close friends.
Viola is sulking in the corner, tears in her eyes as well, outraged at not getting her own way.
I get on my knees by her, “What happened?” I say quietly, creating a private world for the two of us.
“Emma is saying she gets to be the queen! But I want to be the queen!”
“Buggy, it’s her house. When we’re guests at someone’s house we play the way they want to play.”
“It isn’t fair! I want to be queen!”
I sigh inwardly, no it isn’t fair, because I tell her the opposite when friends play at our house. When we have guests we let them decide what to play.
“Well, Viola if you want to play with someone you have to agree. If you have to have your way all the time no one is going to play with you.”
I stand up and turn around. Because really, who cares? Why should Emma get to be queen? Why can’t Viola be queen? I feel ridiculous, because frankly there is no such thing as Queen of Kansas City and this entire game is in the minds of five-year-old girls. I was really enjoying white wine on my friend’s couch and now I’m glowering at Emma who is smiling at Viola smugly through her faux tears. See, you have to let me be queen.
And now I resent this beautiful little girl who I love, but I love my daughter more and we’re all engaged in an imaginary war of the roses and I’m being forced to take sides.
I head back to the living room, trying to come up with some sort of narrative that makes it sound like I actually care about my daughter’s grave misdeeds and that I punished her accordingly.
“Sorry, I talked to her. I tried to tell her no one will want to play with her if she acts like that, but she is such a Marge in Charge.” I feel like a traitor, here I am belittling my daughter to cater to my friend.
“Maybe we should let them work it out. It’s just that Emma has such a gentle spirit. She lets everyone walk all over her.”
I respond eagerly, “Yeah, maybe we should. That’s probably the only way they will learn!” I’m relieved she seems to see the absurdity of inserting ourselves into our children’s pretend games.
Then there’s a piercing shriek from the other room.
“It’s my tiara!!!”
My friend looks at me expectantly. “That could be bad,” she says, “Emma usually has such a generous heart!”
Something changed in me that day as I attempted to sort the politics of an imaginary kingdom. I decided that I am done.
I am done turning on my daughter to pacify my adult friend. I’m done resenting a sweet little girl because she had the audacity to want to be queen over my daughter. I’m done taking the fantastical imaginings of a couple of kids seriously, as if it were life and death, as if my intervening in their pretend game is somehow going to be the defining action that saves them both from a lifetime of destructive social interactions. I am done. When I agree with my friend that we need to let our kids figure it out themselves as we all say we need to do, I have news for you guys, from now on I mean it.
If I hear my kid doing something actively destructive like crossing the line verbally or physically I will absolutely intervene. But if they’re arguing over a toy or playing an imaginary game which includes power struggles, I refuse to act like I care. Because if I do care, it isn’t coming from a pure place. It’s coming from a sad place. A place where I return to my five-year-old self and obsess over the times I was rejected; over the times I didn’t get my way.
Emma’s mother is one of the most generous, tender-hearted people I know. I would imagine her childhood was filled with controlling friends who never treated her the way she treated them. So now when she sees her daughter losing the battle to play queen, all of her own leftover hurt rises up and she thinks, “That’s what my precious child is feeling.”
She panics and that anxiety obscures important details. Details like, none of this is real. Neither child deserves to be queen over the other. Both girls have the lung capacity and intellectual savvy to fight for themselves. Most importantly, this is their game and they don’t need us.
While the kids should figure it out themselves, their parents shouldn’t be fighting over it, too. When our empathy for our kids is in overdrive and we’re sick with the memories of our own childhood pain, it’s easy to forget a very simple truth: We all love our kids more than we love each other’s kids. When you ask your friend to take your child’s side, you’re asking them to turn on their own child.
After speaking to other mothers I’ve learned many have a different approach. They stand up for their kid, endure the rest of the visit, and never pursue a friendship with that family again. All of this over an argument could have been nothing more than fight between kids over who gets to pretend to be Spiderman, who gets to wear the tiara, who has to play the teacher, and who has to play the student. This fight would have done little more than helped teach those kids the interpersonal skills of problem solving, compromise, standing up for themselves, or learning to stand down.
The thing about giving our kids opportunities to learn these skills, instead of using them as opportunities to rewrite our own childhood traumas, is that they really need them. Nobody wins when we co-opt the experience in order to calm our own neuroses.
It’s hard to watch our kids walk all over each other or watch them continuously get walked over. But wouldn’t you rather your child find their voice when they’re demanding their friend let them ride their own bike versus when they’re telling their drunk friend not to drive home?
What better time for our children to learn than now – when the stakes are low and we’re right out in the living room sitting on the couch?