The story goes that this one kid brought a plastic green dinosaur to Show and Tell. It was a giganotosaurus, but to the child showing it, it was a “chicken-notosaurus.”
“Hahaha,” the class laughed along.
And one by one, they began chanting, “Chicken-notosaurus! Chicken-notosaurus!” with great exhilaration that comes from being six and having school days monopolized by carefree circle times.
All of the children chanted, that is, except mine – my Michael, my middle man and my dinosaur expert, who had been triggered but such flippancy toward the greatest species to roam the earth. How could they be so feckless about something as serious as dinosaurs?
“That’s not a chicken-notosaurus,” Michael said, accusingly. “It’s a Giganotosaurus!”
“Huh?” the kid asked.
“That dinosaur you’re holding!” Michael was already exasperated.
“It’s a chicken-notosaurus,” the kid giggled, followed by an eruption of laughter from the others.
But this was no laughing matter. This was outrageous! And Michael took it upon himself to set the record straight. He jumped to his feet, crossed the circle, and ripped the dinosaur from the silly kid’s hands.
“See,” he said, turning it upside down. “Gi-ga-no-to-saur-us.”
He pointed out the syllables camouflaged in the plastic.
“Made in China,” he said slowly, adding emphasis. “It’s a replica…of a GIGANOTOSAURUS!”
His poor teacher, who just wanted a break from the monotony with a little harmless Show and Tell said, “Okay, Michael, thank you for teaching us the dinosaur’s real name, but maybe this is what our friend calls his? Like a nickname.”
“Nope,” the kid said, defiantly. “It’s a chicken-notosaurus.”
Michael turned a tender shade of purple, and all he could escape from his curling lips was a garbled “Ugh” that seemed to go on for an indefinite time in kinder-world. It’s plausible that you can still hear it faintly from the cubby areas this very day.
Later, I received a message that I may want to ask Michael why he got so upset at school. When I did, he responded with complete astonishment. How could I not understand?
“Mommy, they were making fun of dinosaurs.”
In his cozy little world where dinosaurs roamed endlessly in his imagination, laughing at something so central to his heart was next to blasphemy. Who was I to judge his dinosaur ethical line in the sand? Dinosaurs were his passion, and chicken-notosauruses were not invited to play.
In kindergarten there is a chunk of time each afternoon when the classroom is transformed into various centers: blocks, art, handwriting, science and so on. The theory behind this “Choice Time” is that children learn best through play with self-regulation. If the students determine on their own which choices are available to them, they will build discipline and maturity. But that day, it wasn’t the planned choice time that challenged my son. Rather, it was his first foray into a choice time that continues long past school, one with which most of us never master self-regulation with consistent finesse: battles – to choose to fight or to surrender.
My grandmother always said, “Happiness is a choice.” We either choose to be happy or we choose to be miserable. Hers is a principle by which I’ve done my best to live. Reflecting on my battle scars, in several situations I was so lenient that one might dub me a complete pushover, like those times I let the kids continue to play Minecraft instead of doing their chores because they were getting along so well and I wanted the good moods to last. Sure, I would carry a heavier workload in the end, but happy memories and friendships between my children take priority sometimes. It’s a white flag easily raised – one of those “you win” moments that we give into even though we know our initial need, truth, or position wasn’t wrong. In those instances, we choose for happiness around us and hope it rubs off on us. It usually does and we’ve chosen wisely.
Then, there are just as many times when I should have spoken up but didn’t – matters in which “you win” didn’t come easily but came with pressure to not “make a big deal” of things. It seemed wiser to suffer slightly than to start a fuss that would make everyone uncomfortable. This is usually when someone will say to us knowingly, “Choose your battles.” And we, annoyed by such patronizing, think to ourselves, “Yeah, well, I’m choosing every damn one.” But then we take a deep breath and suffer silently anyway. That’s all very noble, but not when a grudge sets in because what was “a big deal” festers. In those cases, did we choose wisely? Probably not.
I agree with my grandmother that happiness is a choice we make each time our “big deals” are challenged. But something influences our choices – something deeper than happiness.
Ballerinas spend hours cramming bleeding, busted up toes into pointe shoes because they love their craft. Parents work jobs they hate to feed the families they love. Activists risk arrest for causes in which they believe. Passion drives us, and for most, motivation almost always begins with something that warrants sacrifice when necessary. What do we want and what are we willing to do to get it? So it seems natural to suggest that when it comes to battles, it’s ultimately a sacrifice we choose and not to fight or surrender.
But when our sacrifice affects more than ourselves, or it puts our image or reputation at risk, how do we know the scar is worth the battle?
In the case of Michael versus chicken-notosaurus, he was filled with such conviction that restraint would have gone against who he was. At six years old, there were only so many things that he believed in passionately – Mommy and Daddy’s love, Santa Claus, and that dinosaurs were the coolest things going. To him, mocking a giganotosaurus was like mocking Jesus because when you’re a kid, your favorite toy or obsession is no different than a belief system. It’s everything that makes you who you are. And I knew that afternoon when I wiped his tear-stained cheeks and fixed him a cup of milk with French vanilla creamer to make it all better that although he had made a “big deal of it,” he had chosen wisely because, to him, dinosaurs were worth fighting for.
But sometimes we fight just to fight. We choose over and over to be a big, fat jerk.
Recently, I was hightailing it across town. I’ve reached that ultra posh phase in life where I am an unpaid chauffeur to three young people destined to kill me with their endless schedules. One needed to get picked up from swim practice, the other had a football game, and the third a sleepover. I was five minutes late as always. I’d worked all day, plus prepped dinner early, run errands for my mother, and I slept like garbage the night before. I was running on coffee and a prayer. My husband was giving me driving directions, but I wasn’t having it.
“Stop,” I sneered. “I’m from here, remember?”
The two in the back seat were playing music and video games at what felt like deafening volumes.
“Turn that down!” I yelled.
“Right now!” I added for extra measure. “Or no electronics all weekend.”
“Geez, Mom,” my daughter said.
Then, just as I was about to make a left turn at a light, the car in front of me put on its brakes. A gaggle of college kids ran over to the car and one by one they climbed in as the light went from green to yellow and back to red.
I honked my horn in protest.
I let out a garbled “Ugh” that seemed to go on for an indefinite time in our car. It’s plausible that you can still hear it faintly along Willow Street to this very day.
“You’re determined to just fight, aren’t you?” my husband asked.
And I, tired, stressed, overworked and underpaid, didn’t know what to say because maybe I did just want to be a jerk and fight.
Childhood specialists say that tantrums are the result of language frustration. Children with underdeveloped vocabulary and emotional immaturity lash out, fists pounding and cries heard across grocery aisles, because they don’t know how to say what they feel. It is such that there is an entire disciplinary method called “Conscious Discipline,” from preschool through high school, based on the importance of word empowerment. For preschoolers, the goal is to help them say confidently to another child, “Please don’t take my toy. I am playing with it.” With my hand resting on the horn, my family miserable, I had a grown-up tantrum and could have used the conscious discipline to say with clarity, “This schedule is breaking me. I need help.”
Only, I chose not to.
I know enough to know that maybe we aren’t jerks after all. Maybe we simply don’t know how to say what needs to be said to avoid the fight? Maybe the battle represents something bigger in all of us – something that traces back to childhood. Perhaps somewhere between circle time and cocktail hour, we stopped learning to use our words and to show and tell what we feel, and that sometimes it’s okay to choose to lose – the fight and our guarded dignity. Most people won’t remember anyway.
Every year Michael gets invited to the birthday party of the kid with the infamous chicken-notosaurus. Every year Michael goes, and every year on the way there, he says, “Remember when I got so mad at him over the giganotosaurus?” Then he gets really quiet.
Sometimes, when the fight is important enough, we never forget why we chose it.