SIBLING RIVALRY

Written in 2010

My three younger sisters are the only thing getting me through this phase of my life. My relationships with them help me to hold out hope that one day my children will not only be civil and kind to each other, but they may actually want to spend time together. I vaguely remember tension between my closest sister and me, as she was only 11 months younger than I was. I recall viscous fights and terrible things said to each other. But with the two younger ones, I only remember fun. Now, as we all raise our children together, there really are no other women I would rather be with. Will my kids ever feel that way? If you spent an hour in my house, you wouldn’t think so.

I am the mother of four boys. The youngest is 7 and adorable. His older brothers love him. He has not yet become annoying. The three other ones are 12, 15 and 18, so there is a lot of testosterone in my house. And with that comes trash talk, bullying, and the occasional “accidental” bat to the teeth. I wish I was kidding about that one. 

 © Wernerimages | Dreamstime.com

© Wernerimages | Dreamstime.com

Coming from a family of girls, I am unaccustomed to the sheer physical nature of their interactions. My two oldest boys now have the bodies of men and tower over me. It seems that no one walks by the other without a nudge, flick or swat to the head. All when I have my back turned, of course. The verbal insults I can at least hear, but often wish I didn’t. I find it heartbreaking the way they speak to each other. Then I have to endure all the different versions of how things went down, who started it and how they should be punished. Invariably, someone is upset that I haven’t taken their side and I feel like I am the one beaten down in the end.

I hear from other men with brothers that this is normal behavior; that what I am experiencing is relatively tame and butting out is the best option. But don’t we have a responsibility as mothers to point out bad behavior? And to protect them from each other? Someone could get really hurt, right?

My mother-in-law stayed with us for a week once and she gave me advice that helped eliminate some volatile exchanges. She suggested that I not put the particularly combative ones together while doing chores, babysitting, on car rides etc. It really worked! My problem is that I frequently forget that advice. In my hurry to get things done, I bark out orders and put them in situations that foster the bad behavior. But I find that now that they are bigger and stronger, I really need to pay attention to what I am asking of them and determine whether they can handle it with everything else that is going on in their life. If they are having a good day and are relatively happy, they might find it fun to be with their brothers and endure a little good-natured ribbing. If not, look out. Someone else is going to bear the brunt of their difficult day.

I’ve tried to put some thought into what each child seeks from another. The older ones really want respect. They want the younger ones to take what they say to heart, to do what they ask the first time, to have their privacy, and their possessions left alone. The younger ones just want to be with the older ones and to be an important part of their lives. None of them need additional parents. I keep saying things like “Just be the cool big brother” or “Be what you want him to become.” Let the parents actually engage in the parental behavior.

Sometimes, I feel their bad behavior is an attempt to get some attention from me. I might be flattering myself, but I do know that if I make the effort to spend time alone with each one, things tend to be better at home. So when I can, I take a boy with me. Whether it is to the grocery store, bank or post office, you can learn a lot when alone for a half hour with a boy. In addition, almost

every day each of them wants/needs something from me- a permission slip signed, form filled out, a button sewn back on their pants. Silly little stuff, but important to them. And when I take care of it, they are more inclined to take care of each other. Sometimes I really have to stop myself and pay attention to what is important to them. I think that is important advice for mothers of children of any age. When we look them in the eye and take their requests to heart, it validates them and lets them know we think they are important.

So in a nutshell, here is what I have found works:

Don’t take sides. If you didn’t see it, you cannot make a judgment about it. Listening to all sides of the story makes you pick sides and someone will be unhappy. My husband came up with a grand plan of punishing all involved equally, regardless of who started it or did what. This has made them think long and hard before coming to us, and they tend to resolve things amicably themselves.

Physical and verbal abuse/ bullying is never acceptable. There is no excuse for it regardless of the behavior that provoked it. When you see or hear it, stop it immediately and remove the offender from the situation. Take away a privilege if the behavior continues.

Don’t put kids who are combative in a situation where they are forced to work together without adult supervision. I have learned who works well together and when I need to, I am involved in supervising the activity. My presence usually keeps the situation under control, without them realizing that is my intention. Sometimes they even have fun together!

Give each child some one-on-one time with a parent as often as you can, especially if they seem to be having a hard time within the family. Reinforcing your unconditional love and letting them know they have you to protect them does wonders for their self esteem and gives them the strength to stand up for themselves.

For the younger kids, teach and model empathy every chance you get. This has been reported to be a critical developmental milestone. If they are able to put themselves in another’s shoes and understand how they feel, it goes a long way in keeping them from treating others badly. And it can be the basis for everything ~sharing, taking turns, manners and respect.

And maybe someday, they will look back on this time fondly, while hanging out with their siblings and their own children. At least we can hope for that, right? I know I do, every day.