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Today's Family Magazine

MOMMY CHRONICLES: An ode to ornery children

By Stacy Turner

People sometimes use birth order to try to explain family dynamics.  Some say their oldest child is more responsible and conscientious, or on the flip side, more controlling or bossy.  Middle kids are often portrayed as easy-going peacemakers, or in a negative light as people pleasers, while the youngest may be seen as outgoing, attention-seeking, or spoiled.  In a family with six kids, the oldest and youngest were clearly defined.  Those of us in between were a bit harder to label, all except my sister Jenny.  She was what today’s parents would call a strong-willed child; back in the day though, she was considered just plain ornery.  

She was the youngest of four consecutive daughters, closest in age to the two youngest kids – both boys.  As the youngest girl, at first she was showered with attention by older sisters who delighted in playing with her, doing her hair and picking out her clothes.  Then they got older and busier, and she developed her own sense of style.  That was around the time she learned how to make a big enough fuss to Mom in order to force inclusion in whatever my best friend and I happened to be doing, just to give our mother some peace.  This was the bane of my young life –– having to bear the perceived punishment of “watching my baby sister” since she was four years younger.  (Today, I love hanging out with her – she’s fun and funny and infinitely more fashionable than me.  And still a bit ornery.)

Most times however, during those younger days, she was happy to be the boss of our younger brothers.  Every day in good weather, this tiny band of bikers would retrieve their bright red and yellow Big Wheel tricycles from the garage and begin doing laps in front of the house.  The sound of nine black, plastic thermoformed tires rolling in unison could be heard from early morning until lunch time through the screen door or open windows.  Every day like clockwork, they rode their usual loop down the cement sidewalk to the asphalt driveway to another sidewalk, and back to the front porch where they had begun. 

Sometimes, my sister would convince our younger brothers to “help” clean her room or whatever small chore she had been assigned.  It was funny to see what she could convince those boys to do.  Not much older than either of them, she had decided early on that she was in charge.  And even though they outnumbered her, and both boys would eventually tower over her, they knew better than to disagree with her.  Jenny ruled with her small, iron fist and her mystical power was far reaching.  Even when she wasn’t around, they knew she would somehow find out if they received a special prize at school or were treated to a rare Happy Meal after a doctor’s appointment.  Such was the power of her wrath, should she discover the unfair good fortune they received. 

She had myriad ways to “punish” not just the boys, but her three older siblings as well, for any perceived infractions.  Having a day off school or being invited to a sleepover were just a few of the ways we older kids earned her wrath.  She had a stash of makeshift “bullets” made from tiny balls of aluminum foil she’d crafted for a hand-me-down cap gun.  They didn’t work in the gun, but like some weird little mafia enforcer, she hid the bogus slugs in the bed of whoever had disrespected her.  Upon climbing into bed and finding them, scratching against bare legs in the darkened room, you knew you’d somehow stumbled into her crosshairs.  If she was extra mad, you might lay your head down only to find she had inflicted her ultimate punishment –– pouring water on your pillow.

As a mother now, I imagine it was a struggle for my parents to keep from laughing when confronted with her latest unusual exploit.  In jest, Dad dubbed her “Mean Jenny Jean” and for years, this moniker stuck.  Even though Dad would reprimand her, I think he was secretly proud of her spunk.  No one would take advantage of ‘Mean Jenny Jean’.  He took to leaving her notes addressing her as MJJ, prompting her to apologize to one sibling or another for her latest creative assault.  He’d sign them from Bad Dad, a former ornery kid himself. 

Today, Mean Jenny Jean has become just Jen and is a mom to two girls.  Luckily, her youngest inherited a bit of MJJ’s strong will.  And while she’s a bit less overt in her tactics, she’s still got the guts to stand up for herself and won’t be pressured to do anything she doesn’t want to do, something that’s serving her well in her teen years.  

So, if you’re struggling to reign in your strong-willed child, please take heart.  Know that those attributes that sometimes make life more difficult during the growing up years may just be what gives your older kid the strength to stand their ground and stick up for others when it really matters.  Some of today’s strong-willed, ornery kids, with love and attention, may become tomorrow’s leaders and change agents.