My son and I sit in the van, shivering and waiting for the car to warm up. We're also waiting for my youngest daughter, Amy, to emerge from the garage.
It feels like both things are taking a long time.
Looking at the clock and the ice on the road in front of our house, I realize we're already cutting it close. If we don't leave soon, the children will have to line up for tardy slips at school.
This isn't good because one of our resolutions for the new year is to get to school earlier, so I say, "Jimmy, go inside and see what Amy is doing."
I don't say this angrily or impatiently. I don't sigh or indicate frustration or imply in any way that Amy is in trouble. It's an instruction that contains no emotional expression.
Nevertheless, I have just invested Jimmy with authority. He's my mouthpiece, my agent, my representative. He's certainly not going to pass up the chance to lord over his younger sister.
So, rather than stick his head in the door and ask, "Amy, are you ready?" or "Do you need help?" or "Is something wrong?" he slams it open and yells, "Get out here."
When Amy climbs into the van, her eyes are brimming with tears, and she asks tentatively, "Mom, are you mad?"
This kind of thing happens all the time, and I don't know why.
I'll be in the kitchen making dinner, looking for an extra pair of hands to set the table. I send an emissary to bring another child from the den to help, but the message that's communicated is, "You're toast. Get in the kitchen."
Either I am unaware of how my voice sounds to my children, which would mean they are accurately portraying me as a brutal dictator (no comments, please), or there's a sibling dynamic working here that's worth exploring.
I think it's the latter.
Mulling over this power-trip phenomenon, I've asked myself, "Does this happen elsewhere in civil society?" Sure enough, it does.
Ever notice "walkie-talkie" people? These are the folks who are handed a headset or a two-way radio and invested with temporary authority. As soon as they get their hands on this equipment, they behave as if they're the secret police.
You see them monitoring the parking lot at football games or securing the entry to a convention center or pacing the flow of traffic into a public restroom.
"Walkie-talkie authority" generates from the moment of investiture, the point when instructions are passed on to a delegate whose role it is to speak for "the Man" (or in my case, the mom).
My theory is that "walkie-talkie" people learned to love the exercise of power as children, when they experienced the ability to dominate others with the utterance of two little words: "Mom said."
These words are the childhood equivalent of a two-way communication device. They are the words that deputize a child, allowing him to ride through the trails of his home meting out vigilante justice.
Here's how they work:
"You can't eat those chips. Mom said."
"You can't play on the computer now. Mom said."
"You can't use those scissors. Mom said."
When enforcement is met with resistance, there's always this backup phrase:
"I'm telling mom."
I've also observed that if "absolute power corrupts absolutely," power invested in children corrupts childishly.
For example, when imparting the directive "Mom said to take out the garbage," the anointed "walkie-talkie" sibling manages to snag the TV remote, the best chair in the family room and the bowl of popcorn previously being consumed by her sister.
It's survival of the fittest. It's the law of the jungle. It's like watching prison trustees in action. Sigh.
Invariably, there's not much I can do to restore the proper balance of power between siblings except reassert my own, unassailable position at the top of the heap.
It's inconvenient because this means I lose the middleman who allows me to exploit my position as the grownup by, say, staying in the van as the heat comes on.
The challenge is to teach my children the difference between lording over people and leading them.
On this chilly morning, I realize again that I have a long way to go in teaching this particular life lesson.
By the time I maneuver the van over the icy tread marks to the end of our street, I have managed to reassure Amy that she is not in trouble. She wipes away her tears and settles back in her seat. Through the rearview mirror, I can see the tension ease out of her face.
I spend the rest of the drive to school talking to Jimmy about what he might have said or done to help Amy move more quickly.
"Suppose instead of bossing her around, you had gone inside and offered to help her?" I ask.
I explain that the best leaders are those who serve others, but it's a tough sell. Apparently, it's way more fun to yell at your little sister than carry her backpack to the van.
Sometimes I'm not sure I'll ever get this point across.
Maybe I should just go out and buy some walkie-talkies. At least that way, I could communicate without the middleman.