When I was a kid, I read a short story by Erma Bombeck. (Yes, I was that weird kid who skipped YA literature entirely and went straight to Erma Bombeck. And Sidney Sheldon.) In the story, as a mother is being buried, her three kids each receive a letter from her, where she tells them why they were her favorite child. The last line is a judgmental neighbor clucking, “Can you believe she didn’t leave those boys anything?”
The implication, of course, is that she left them the most important thing. The confidence that comes with knowing that you were loved and, even more essential, valued for the traits that make you you, rather than for generic “because I’m your Mommy and I love all my children the same, that’s why,” reasons.
The story stuck with me, and when I had kids (also three, as a matter of fact), I made the conscious decision to tell each that they were my favorite, too. Only I didn’t wait until I was dead, and I didn’t ask them to keep it a secret from the others.
My oldest son is 15 years old. As such, he has many less than stellar qualities, including talking back, talking loudly, and talking incessantly. But he is also, in the words of the TV show “Modern Family,” a “self-cleaning oven.” This child has been taking care of himself since he was a toddler. The reason we didn’t realize he had a speech delay when he was 3 was because he never asked for things (or even pointed, which deeply concerned the pediatrician). He simply went and got them himself. He started traveling alone back and forth to school on public transportation when he was 10, and a year later he began escorting his younger brother.
When it came time to apply to high school in NYC (a nightmarish, Kafka-esque process), he filled out the paperwork himself, he scheduled his interviews himself, he studied on his own with no prompting from me, and then he took all the necessary tests. Now that he is in 10th grade, I have never once had to ask him if his homework was done. I’ve never had to chastise him for being disorganized or wake him up in the morning because he was late for school. I issue him a cash budget for the school year and he not only buys his own clothes, he shops for the food essentials he needs to pack his lunch every day. His grades are good, his teachers have no complaints, and neither do his friends’ parents.
So how can I not, on days when it’s time to leave for school but my daughter is still packing the backpack she swore was ready the night before, and my younger son is trying to recall if he took his wet swimsuit and towel out of his bag the night before (or was that the week before?) and where, exactly, might his hat and gloves be? How can I not grab my teen, hug him tightly, and proclaim, “You are my favorite child!”
My middle child is 11. Up through the age of 6 or so, I was convinced he was trying to kill me. Not physically. We’re not talking Stewie Griffin, here (though when he was a baby and my brother and I played at articulating his thoughts, we did do it in Stewie’s faux British accent, because he looked equally calculating). Rather, he was trying to kill me psychologically. My mother once described my younger son as, “a perfectly agreeable boy, as long as what you want him to do lines up with what he wants to do, precisely.” That rarely happened. My aunt, who ran a daycare center for 20 years, told me to bring him over. She’d spend some time with him and offer a few pointers. At the end of an hour, she handed him back. “I don’t know what to tell you,” the expert surrendered.
This is a boy who once spent three days stubbornly (not) eating the same bowl of oatmeal–and nothing else. The one who required me chatting with his teacher nearly every week of third grade. The one who turned cleaning his room into a theological debate.
And yet, that same mind that is so capable of tormenting me, is also oddly fascinating. You literally never know what he is going to do next. He taught himself to computer program and, when he learned that despite passing all their tests, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth wouldn’t let him take the course he wanted because he was too young, he went ahead and built his own version, offering it free on the web to anyone who wanted it. To give you an idea of how his brain works, he named it Coursacado. Because it’s part course… and part avocado.
When the other two are whining about being bored or following me from room to room looking for me to entertain them, talking at me rather than to me, how can I not point to their perennially tinkering brother, who always has some computer or buzzing electronics project going, and proclaim, “See? That’s why he’s my favorite child!”
And then there’s my daughter. Eight years old, and nothing at all like me. The child wakes up smiling. The child spends her day smiling. The child goes to sleep smiling. (Yes, she stalls and tries to push back bedtime like any other kid. But she always does it with a smile.) She gets dragged along to all of her brothers’ activities and never complains. Teachers tell me that when someone breaks a pencil in class, my daughter is the first to offer hers as a replacement. A parent told me that, at a birthday party, when another little girl burst into tears because she couldn’t see the cake from where she was sitting, my daughter was the one who got up and offered hers. (I am a little concerned that her innate kindness and good nature will lead to her becoming a pushover whom anyone can take advantage of, but that’s another post for another time.)
So when my boys are going on and on about something I barely understand; when the oldest one is ripping his hair out over college admissions, SATs, and the GPA he recalculates daily, and when the younger one is literally squawking in computer gibberish, all that’s left is for me to call my daughter, “Come here, my perfect, favorite child who never causes me any trouble ever whatsoever.”
This has all been going on for so long that my kids take it in stride. They might ceremoniously object, “I thought I was your favorite child! You told me that I was!” But the whole thing traditionally gets laughed off.
Except, once in a while, any of the three will come over to me, snuggle up, and whisper, “I know that I’m really your favorite.”