On the Semiotics of Household Dominance
Every family has a dominant member – he who grabs the purse strings, she who brings order to the house, whoever defines the discourse of domestic life. In extended families a grandparent might hold sway, in single parent families the eldest child could well prevail. Depending on the extent to which physical space is at a premium, there may be a competition of interests, a battle of wills if you like. All of these scenarios apply to hamlets as they do to cities, and shift with relative ease across countries and cultures. People live to together and they have to get by. So one person emerges as the conciliator, the arbitrator, the boss. In my apartment, Little G reigns supreme.
Now let me tell you something about two-year-old children, if you don’t already know. They are, as you might imagine, just approaching and sometimes just passing the threshold of rationality. Those who speak early and easily take little time to insinuate themselves into higher levels of the hierarchy, on par with their elder siblings. Before they know it, your older children have no effective seniority, and they wish for a slightly dumber – but not too dumb – younger kid around their knees. But my step-daughter never had a chance.
Little G, now almost three, realised very early on that speech patterns determine thought, that convincing other people to speak in a certain way will limit, mould and direct the manner in which they think. From the moment her younger brother arrived, barely a year after her own grand entrance, she insisted on calling him Baby. She knew his name but spoke it not once in his first year. After a month or two of resistance her sister, my wife and I were all in line, using the now correct term for the kid. Then Little G began the second stage of her strategy – objectification. Her brother became The Baby, and we fell into line. She had risen above her station, breached mere childhood and entered the realm of personhood.
Soon, my step-daughter was The Ate (ate, for those or you who don’t know, is ‘elder sister’ in Tagalog). Little G had leapt up another level, into the embrace of adulthood – The Ate is eighteen.
Because parents love their children – or at least they ought to – we accepted this shift in the power balance with a certain calm naiveté. Cute little kid we thought, and strong willed. But we were just kidding ourselves. I soon became The Papa and my wife, as you might imagine by now, became The Mama, although Little G sometimes condescends to call her Aida. More recently we’ve had two women staying with us long enough for them to become de facto members of the family. Little G mostly calls them by their names, Beth and Yayah. She considers them her equals.
Little G can rise no further in this household – she’s already at the top.