Hey! I Was Playing With That!


The other day on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (my daughter’s favorite show), the characters were dealing with feeling jealous and what to do about it. I held my fourteen month old on my lap and talked to her about it. Though I know that she still is too little to really understand, I know for a fact that she is familiar with that feeling already. She doesn’t have the capacity yet to recognize it for what it is or think about what to do about it aside from take what she wants but I still talked to her. I told her that, when she gets bigger, if she feels jealous or wants something that someone else has, she can come to Mommy and Mommy will help her talk about it and figure out what to do.

No one has to teach a child how to be jealous. We see it immediately in toddlers with no prompting whatsoever. They aren’t necessarily interested in a toy or item until they see you or another person with it. Then, immediately, desire kicks in and the child is at your side, or the side of another child, reaching for and/or taking the item for themselves. If it is between two children, there is no mistaking the look on the face of the other child. We all know that look or those words.

“Hey, I was playing with that!”

 It’s a protest, a cry against the sudden change. What was dear to us, even for a short amount of time, has been snatched from us, even feels like it has been stolen. I have seen Elizabeth both take and be taken from and observed her reactions, as well as those of the other little ones. My girl is not retiring or demure when she wants something but it was clear to me that she did not like being on the other side of the mirror (who does, after all?), having had something taken from her by another child. She almost seemed to wilt a little bit, coming over to me with that look in her eyes of, “What do I do?” And all I could do was hug her and give her a new toy from nearby.

Adults are no different from children in their needs, wants, and the resulting jealousy and fear. However, with adults, it tends to be less about things and more about people. We treasure the attention of the people in our lives, enjoy the novelty and excitement of meeting new ones, and relax in the comfort of familiar attentions. Whether those people are siblings, parents, significant others, or friends, we will, at some point, find ourselves in the position of “sharing” that person’s friendship, time, and/or attention with others. And that is hard, especially at the outset. For lack of a better example, adults often have the same reaction as children when someone new comes along into the life of someone they care about.

“Hey! I was playing with that!”

 However, that reaction is usually hidden away in our private thoughts and feelings (as we are painstakingly taught to do in ‘polite society’), but they are still there. We have to give up the attention of the person in question, or at least a modicum of it, to make room for this new person in their life. And you’re often very right: you were there first, you were playing with them first. We all know that people are not toys, they are not possessions to be “played with”, but the principle is the same. We have to share because interdependence and relationship are part of the human existence. However much of a loner we may wish to be, there is no escaping relationship, not really. With relationship, then, comes a vulnerability born of caring, and jealousy is part of that. If you don’t like the term “jealousy”, call it “envy”, call it “being protective” or “territorial”. Use whatever describer you may prefer, but the result is the same. It happens when you care, even the littlest bit. It can blindside you in a moment’s blink. It can make your cheeks flush and stomach flop and make you want to become the Incredible Hulk and just SMASH!

“Hey! I was playing with that!”

Life is constantly new and exciting and jarring and it comes along with new twists and turns, well-met’s and fare-thee-well’s, for all of us. Along the way, somehow, we learn to cope. We learn to deal, to speak, to adjust, to adapt, and to love nonetheless.

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