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The Boy loves racing his sister, as long as he wins.

“Haha, I win!” he sings delightedly as he gets to the end of the garden path first.

“Haha, I lose!” the Girl chants with equal enthusiasm, arriving just behind him.

Most of the time, they play very happily together. That is, as long as the Boy is in charge, or at least on board with the chosen activity.

Things go wrong when The Girl does not comply. This time she has not waited for the Boy. She pelts down the garden path with her doll’s pram, heading for the finish. The Boy is left behind, still trying to turn his bike around, crying and screeching at her: “NOOOO, I need to be in front! It’s not a race this time! STOP!”

It is not okay for the Girl to have her own ideas about what or how to play. He can say that they are racing or not racing, but she cannot.  When they are in the garden, they need to play the Boy’s elaborate games. If his sister is engrossed in some other activity of her own choosing, he gets more and more cross until he is stamping and crying with frustration.

After an incident this morning, I called the Boy into the kitchen. I showed him a bottle of (rather nice balsamic) vinegar and a squeezy bottle of honey.

“Smell,” I said. “Which one do you like better?”

He was still wiping tears of rage from his eyes. His sister had refused to come inside, and I had got cross with him for trying to drag her by her arm. He sniffed the honey and smiled. He sniffed the vinegar and pulled a face.

“I don’t like that one better,” he said.

“So you prefer the honey?”

“Yes. The honey.”

“If you were trying to catch a fly, what would you use to try to get them to come to you? The vinegar or the honey?”

He pointed at the honey.

“And if you want to get your sister to do something, how do you think you could persuade her? Would you say something sweet like the honey, or would you say something sour, like the vinegar?”

“Something sweet,” he said, cottoning on.

“That’s right. If you shout and yell and get cross, she won’t do what you want. But she might if you make it into something nice for her.”

I made a quick mental note that I should heed this advice myself a bit more often. I thought back, blushing, to many occasions this week when I was less than enticing trying to get the kids into the car to go to pre-school. Note to self: Use more metaphorical honey.

It’s not like I haven’t had a lifetime of practice.

As a child, I was an incredibly bossy older sister. Unlike The Boy, I had a very compliant younger sibling, so I did have an easier time of it with far less stamping and crying. But I also developed more effective tactics for getting my little brother to do what I wanted. I used plenty of honey. To entice him into my imaginary worlds, I used to make sure he was the main character. I was everyone else. When we played boarding school, I called it “Crickety Pitches” (my brother is a big cricket fan) and he got to be the protagonist – I played his best friend Ricky, the teachers, the bullies, the dinner ladies and misc ground staff. When we played Enchanted Planet Dnzjnov, he was the son of the ruling wizard and I was the servant girl side kick.

You’d think playing second fiddle would bother me, but I had discovered early on that it is not the main character who is in charge. Besides all the supporting roles and extras, I always played the part of the narrator. I shaped the world, I controlled the action, I was behind the earthquakes, the villains and their crafty plans and the sudden surprise Maths quizzes. I had discovered the power of the writer.

As you can see, I was an expert make up artist. I really thought I'd done a great job on the Easter Bunny facepaint.

As you can see, I was an expert make up artist. I really thought I’d done a great job on the Easter Bunny facepaint. Photo: (c) P.M.Kroonenberg

A case in point, preserved for posterity on a precious cassette tape, was our Easter Play. The story was ostensibly about the Easter Bunny, played by my brother at age 3. All the other credits were mine (Judith, age 6): set design, costumes, make up, supporting character (The Little Mouse) and narrator. Despite my parents’ best efforts at intervention, which can be heard on the tape, the Easter Bunny only got two, grudging lines in the whole play, one to say he was happy it was Easter, the other to say he was going home.

My brother was perfectly happy, even if my parents were not. He was drunk on honey.

Yes, I was a master, even at age 6. Is my son, at 4 1/2, ready to be my apprentice?

This afternoon, the kids have a friend round to play. In the hallway I can hear the Boy getting cross with his friend. “Noooo you need to go upstairs! We are playing with the cuddlies! GET BACK HERE!”

“Are you using honey?” I ask my son.

“No. Vinegar,” he says, ashamed.

“How can you ask nicely, so your friend might want to come upstairs with you?”

The Boy looks promisingly thoughtful, so I leave him to come up with a sensitive, gentle, conflict resolving scheme.

Five minutes later the Boy appears by my side with the bottle of honey. “I tried running upstairs with it, but he didn’t follow the honey,” he tells me. “It didn’t work.”

Hm. Not quite there yet.

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