Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

In Honor of Father's Day: Seeing a Penguin Through My Husband's Perspective

One first-grade animal project, two very different perspectives.

I learned something new last week: how to see the world through my husband's eyes. What a nice trip down his memory lane. What a great cure for the irritation I had been feeling!

It all started with our first-grade daughter's end-of-the- year project to write a report on an animal of her choice and to create a model of the animal. The guidelines were loose; kids could make the models out of any materials they wanted, so long as they didn't just buy a stuffed animal or cut its picture from a magazine.

In a rare moment of decisiveness, our daughter quickly settled on the penguin as her animal-of-choice and starting scribbling ideas for its construction on paper. "This is going well," I thought. She asked me to bring up Google on the computer, so that she could find out some facts about penguins for her report. "This is going very well," I decided. I didn't even know she knew what Google was!

I assisted her a very little bit with picking out interesting penguin facts (did you know that the smallest species of penguin is called the Fairy Penguin?) and making sure her spelling was correct, but she really and truly wrote her report all by herself. Responsibility for own work encouraged. Check. Independence cultivated. Check. Pride in her work fostered. Check, check, check.

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Now, on to the model of the penguin, otherwise known as "Daddy's department." My husband and our daughter enjoyed a mini-spree through our local crafts store, though while I was browsing with our younger child, I did notice our first-grader skipping to keep up with her dad as he efficiently grabbed items off of shelves and moved briskly from one aisle to the next. At the check-out counter, when I asked her what materials they bought, she smiled excitedly and said, "I have no idea."

I watched in abject horror as my husband spent the day (the entire day) painting, gluing, cutting, running to the hardware store (!), beading, cursing, and studying his penguin model. Our daughter was sort of in and out of the room-eagerly checking in on what her Daddy was doing, then happily going back to her own fun.

My heart was sinking and my irritation was rising. I was flooded with memories of my own sixth grade design-a-mode-of-transportation project, when my mom hijacked my model. I vividly recall taking a finely-crafted wooden bobsled to school and having it be the best project on the table-and feeling mortified because it was so obvious that a sixth grader never could have built a model of that quality.

Watching my husband build the penguin on his own, I was terrified that our daughter would face the same humiliation. Pride in her work? Out the window! I needed to protect my daughter from the miserable experience I had had.

I explained my sixth-grade horror story to my husband who, in turn, relayed his fondest third-grade memory of his father carving an eagle's head into a section of a totem pole that he was tasked to create. In his case, his father's obvious contribution to his project was a source of tremendous pride-a happy experience that he wanted to re-live by helping our daughter.

One first-grade animal project, two very different perspectives-both entirely legitimate. How to proceed? What do you do when two people have opposite perspectives on a subject, yet both are 100% correct?

We let our daughter take the lead. She seemed thrilled with how the penguin model was going and didn't appear to feel any of the angst I experienced so many years ago. In fact, she was named "Assembler-in-Chief" as she glued all of the individual pieces of the penguin together to create the final model. On presentation day, she was beaming. I heard the pride in her voice as she explained to her teacher and the other visiting parents about how her and her Daddy built the penguin and I knew, looking in her eyes, that her memory of this experience would be a happy one.

I was wrong, I admit it. Not about how I felt with my own project (still bitter after all of these years!) but about how someone else would feel in a similar situation. Looking through the window of my husband's experience helped me view a world I hadn't known was possible. From our daughter's unique perspective, here is what I witnessed:


Full responsibility for her written report. Check. Confidence and pride in her presentation. Check. Lifelong fond memory of her Father. Check, check, check.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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