My children fight with each other like an old married couple. The use phrases like you always and you never and you’re not listening to me. They proclaim their undying love and affection for each other with one breath, and declare they never liked each other at all with the next breath. They can play together so nicely that it makes my heart sing. They can bicker with each other until I feel like my ears are bleeding and I just want the fighting to stop, right now, this instant, I can’t take another second. They are partners in crime when they conspire to hide in the closet with a bag of marshmallows, and they are arch enemies when they decide that the marshmallow distribution is not perfectly equal.
I understand that this sort of thing is par for the course with siblings. I have a sister who is two years younger than I am, and I remember what it was like to grow up with her. I remember the way that always having my sister around could be alternately comforting and stifling. On the one hand, when it was just the two of us in a sea of adults there was always a ready playmate. On the other hand, sometimes we were just sick of each other. We forged a complicated relationship that, to this day, remains unique in my life. When I’m with her I speak a little faster, my voice pitches a little higher, and I use a verbal shorthand that I don’t use with anyone else. She’s my sister, and she always will be, for better or worse.
Growing up, sibling dissent wasn’t tolerated in my house. My sister and I were expected to get along. If we fought over a toy, that toy went away. If we hurt each others’ feelings, we had to make up. My hippie parents wanted to sew harmony, not dissent, in our home. As a result, my sister and I learned to hide our fights, retreating to our room and talking in whispers. We knew that if our mother heard us, the consequences would be far worse than anything that we would dole out to each other.
My own parenting style is a little more laid back. For the most part, I try to stay out of the sibling fray. I look at my children’s relationship with each other as a sort of testing ground, where they can learn about fairness, negotiation and conflict resolution. The more that I butt out, the better for all parties.
Unfortunately, my children don’t always respect my parenting decision. They look to me as a moderator. They come to me with their stories of how their sibling has wronged them. They both talk at me, at top volume, trying to make sure that I hear their side of the story. Provided that no serious harm has been done, I try to bow out. I tell them that I want them to work things out for themselves. I tell them that I really don’t like it when they fight, and I don’t want to take sides. I tell them that I’m making dinner / cleaning the floor (yet again) / working / reading / trying to hide in the bathroom. They don’t care. They want to tell me all about their dispute over the bubble wands, in all its gritty detail.
I can see where my kids are coming from. We all want to feel understood, especially by our parents. When your sense of fairness and justice has been violated by your brother or sister, you look to the adult who’s present to share your story. Once one kid is coming to me, of course the other needs to come, too. You want to make sure that your side is represented. I understand all of that. Mostly, though, I just want the fighting to stop.
And so it goes, day after day. I try to let my kids work things out for themselves. Sometimes they do, and life is grand. Sometimes they don’t, and everyone is sad. No matter which way things are going, though, I can see that my kids are forming their own special and unique relationship. They know the joys and aggravations of having a sibling, and I am happy for them. I know that it isn’t always easy (or quiet), but I also know that decades from now, they will be so glad they have always had each other.
When your kids are fighting, do you wade in or stay out? I’d love to hear your own tales of sibling rivalry.