The Rockwood Files: Big Brother, Big Influence

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Our house is mainly a benevolent dictatorship, but there are a few things the kids have absolute control over. They decided when they were ready for potty-training. They decide if and when they’re going to swallow that bite of food Dad insists they taste. (Ever try to make a kid swallow? Nearly impossible.) And, within reason, they decide on the location for their own birthday party. Your birthday, your party, your choice.

Our middle child, Jack, is about to turn 5. Both his older brother and little sister had birthdays about a week apart from one another back in December, so Jack has been wondering for nearly six months now when it would be his turn. Finally, it’s time.

Several weeks ago, Jack announced his birthday party would happen at Chuck E. Cheese. “Are you sure, Jack,” I asked.

“Yes, I’m sure. I love it,” he answered.

“Okay. Chuck E. Cheese it is,” I promised.

A week later, I was ready to call the restaurant and make the arrangements. I checked with Jack to be sure he hadn’t changed his mind. He hadn’t.

Five minutes later, a commercial came on for a new 3-D Disney movie called “Up”. The movie trailer showed thousands of balloons tied to a cartoon house being lifted up into the sky with a little old man and a boy scout trapped inside, taking off on a great adventure. At the end of the movie trailer, the announcer said it would be “in theatres May 29th.”

Jack’s older brother, Adam, nearly jumped out of his chair.

“Jack! That means the movie will be open on your birthday! We could go see it on your birthday! You could have your party at the movies!” Adam said.

“But I picked Chuck E. Cheese,” Jack said.

“Well, I guess that’s okay, too. But the movies are so cool,” Adam countered, putting extra emphasis on the “cool” part.

Jack was quiet for a few moments. Then he came over to me privately and quietly asked two important questions:
”Mom, if I had a party at the movies, could I still have birthday cake?” he asked.

“Yes, you could,” I said.

“And if I had a party at the movies, could I still open presents?” he asked.

“Yes, you could,” I said again.

“Adam! Guess what? I’m having my birthday party at the movies! With cake and presents! It’s gonna be so cool.”

The brothers celebrated joyously around the kitchen. They could hardly wait for the party. I questioned Jack about it a few more times to make sure it was what he really wanted and not just a concession to his big brother. He was sure about it, but I knew part of his enthusiasm for the new idea was directly tied to his brother’s “so cool” declaration.

It reminded me of something that I, too, learned at an early age: If your big brother or sister thinks it’s cool, then it’s cool. Period. One of the advantages that firstborns have is the power to wield influence over the siblings that follow. As a younger sibling, you can only hope they use their power for good and not evil.

One of the stories that gets told and re-told in my family is how my older brother, Greg, and I spent our money one summer during vacation. Each year our parents took us to this little craft fair in Hope, Arkansas, to celebrate the town’s watermelon festival. When we were old enough, they let us roam the festival on our own as long as we stuck together. We each had $10 to spend at the fair.

On the summer in question, we roamed the fairgrounds and happened across a man standing behind a card table stacked high with boxes of “Jolly Pops.” These Jolly Pops were a knock-off of a better known product called Pop Ice, which are plastic tubes of flavored water that you freeze like a popsicle, cut off the top and then squeeze the frozen treat out of its sleeve.

We stood there pondering a purchase decision when the man made us a deal my brother couldn’t refuse. “Twenty dollars for 300 Jolly Pops,” he said. Seemed like hard math to argue with, and it was even tougher to argue with my brother about it. He was thrilled about the deal, so I easily caved in when he asked me to pitch in so we could jointly own the huge case of Jolly Pops.

We hauled our treasure back to the station wagon and waited for my parents to return. When my mother realized we’d spent all our money on popsicles, she was not thrilled. But the deal was done. We took them home, loaded them into our deep freezer and started eating them the next day.

We soon realized that only two of the five flavors of Jolly Pops were edible. The other flavors tasted like a combination of Pine-Sol and anti-freeze. But because our mother is biologically hard-wired not to throw out any food of any kind, our deep freezer housed roughly 250 Jolly Pops for the next two decades. True story.

So, big brothers and sisters of the world, use your influence wisely and kindly. There are lots of us younger siblings out here who will change our minds, change our birthday parties and change our lives just to hear you say it’s “so cool.” Pass the popcorn.

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