Scarlett is barely twenty-one months old. And already, Matthew can be heard at least a few times a week fuming, “You’re not the boss of me, SCARLETT!” when she tries, unassumingly, to mimic something I’ve just finished saying to him.
Ah, sibling rivalry. We have arrived.
Of course the pocket-sized misunderstandings that happen between the younger two is pillow-fighting compared to the full-scale warfare that’s been going on between Matthew and Mary since the two were of an age where they could communicate. They get along better than anyone could have thought possible with such an age difference between them -- they build forts together and play school; Matthew takes up for her and she takes time to show him things she knows he'll enjoy; they spend a lot of time at the same house up the street where there are siblings close in age to each of them - Mary doesn’t even mind helping Matthew to clean up his room sometimes so that he can walk with her to their house; Matthew learned to look forward to Fridays during the school year because Mary would usually invite him into her room for little ‘sleep-overs’ which Matthew always loved because her room has a T.V. But they fight just as often.
Fists pound on the outside of a locked door. Threats are screamed from one room to the next. Matthew comes thundering through the hall, either laughing wildly at the insanity he’s driving her to or running to me in tears over something unfair that she did. Mary rattles off a thousand things he did to provoke her, struggling to be heard over his exhausted, frustrated wailing. She mimics him in a crybaby voice and it’s all he can do not to hit her right in front of me.
I’ve worked with children all of my life, this is nothing compared to what some families deal with - and in the end, because they do a lot of things separately anyway, all is usually forgiven and forgotten about by the time their designated separation period is over. They apologize willingly, often without having to even be told and generally, once it’s out of their system for the day, they get along really well. All things considered I think we keep it pretty well managed.
We work hard to strike a balance between refereeing (especially when it comes to name-calling, which is just not allowed) and letting them learn to sort through issues on their own. This means that I spend a lot of time just listening in, waiting to see if, when and how I’ll be needed. Sibling rivalry is exhausting for everyone involved and because of the nature of what it is, there has been a time or two or twelve it’s gone too far, but it’s one of those necessary evils in the life of a family. I like to think that they’ll learn to handle it all with more and more grace over time with experience, so that in the coming years when they’re confronted with adversity outside of the comfort and safety of family, they’ll have a strong foundation in self-control, consideration for others, and overall conflict resolution from which to draw. At least, that’s the hope.
If you started reading this hoping to find some sort of cure-all solution for bickering, you’re in the wrong place.
But, I’ve noticed recently that there may be another silver lining to all of this thunder and lightening. I realize that I’ve actually learned a lot about my children through the way that they argue with one another. Things that have helped me to become a better, more self-aware parent.
The other day Mary was invited to sleep over at a friend’s house. When she found out what would be for dinner, she made the most disgusted face that she could manage, turned away over-dramatically and said, “Ugh, disgusting! I hate meatballs.” Then she whined very loudly, “What are we having? Can I just eat at home? Or are we having (she twists her face up, disgustedly again) leftovers again?” It’s rude on so many levels and I’m embarrassed even though her friend’s mom laughs it off good-naturedly. When we meet back at home for her to grab her overnight clothes, I pull her aside and start to lecture. Even if she isn’t in the mood to act remorseful, I fully expect her to know what I’m upset about, but she genuinely doesn’t. She isn’t being defensive… she’s really having a hard time pinning what it was she did that was rude.
Suddenly I realize that there’s a good possibility guest-etiquette has really just never been fully laid out for her before. Matthew just started going to friends’ houses without me staying with him the entire time. And the first dozen or so times, I reminded him from our front step all the way to theirs about manners and how to be a polite and gracious guest - especially to his friends’ parents. Each time the visit was over, I’d ask him to tell me about opportunities he had to use his manners and we’d talk about it. (He slipped up all the time by the way; manners are definitely not the easiest thing in the world to teach an impulsive child!) Maybe, before I came along, no one really did that for her and I certainly am not usually around during the many meals she’s had away from home now, so I’d really have no way of knowing that her manners in this area have ever needed to be addressed.
She wasn’t trying to insult the mom’s cooking, she said; meatballs are just a food she doesn’t prefer. It was hard for her to understand, which reminded me of something I’m always telling her to keep in mind with her brother when they get into a fight: “He’s still learning,” I always say. He doesn’t always understand why the impulses he has are wrong. So if they are wrong, it’s our job to explain to him why we didn’t like what he did and how it made us feel. If instead, we automatically assume he has horrible, irrational intentions, we create a problem where we could have found a solution.
Taking that principle out of it’s original context helped to me to see Mary’s point-of-view in a new light. Spencer and I are both admittedly bad about forgetting sometimes that Matthew is only four. It helps to remember sometimes that the same theory can be applied to older children too. Especially when they’re at an age where we tend to think they’re pretty much done learning the basics.
Constantly being on damage-control between my children has taught me to see things from different points of view. It’s conditioned me to see each child outside of their usual syntax in order to help them find compromises that reach across the age barriers between them. I try hard not come across as though I’m taking one child’s “side” over another in an argument. And in doing so, I’ve learned to dig deeper for feelings I cam empathize with, in order to reach both parties in the talk we have afterward. Because conflict resolution is so heavily dependant on considering the age of the children involved, I’ve learned to be more conscientious of those age barriers in my own dealings with them. I’ve learned a lot about how they stomach stress and I’ve become more in-tuned to where their sensitivities are.
Another good example was Scarlett’s habit of hitting a few months ago, which we were fortunately able to nip in the bud with an effectiveness we were never able to reach with her older brother.
Scarlett is a very laid back, happy toddler. But when she gets stressed, she goes berserk. Even as a baby, she’d grab at your clothing and yank while she cried, like she was trying to rip something. It’s instinctual for her to let out aggression physically and that worried me when she became a toddler and was willing and able now to not only hurt others, but even sometimes herself. (Sometimes she’ll even pull at her face and let out a scream until she goes red. It’s very unsettling.)
So to counter this, instead of taking a stern ‘that will not be tolerated’ approach, my foremost aim was simply to calm her. If she hits, I say: Oh, we give nice touches to Matthew/Mommy/the cat, etc. I never tell her no or even hint to her that I’m upset. I don’t know if this same approach would have worked as well with Matthew but I’d have loved to at least given it a try because it has been a godsend in it’s effectiveness with her. Immediately, she’d calm down and copy the nice touch we demonstrated on her and then want to be held. After a few weeks of this, we noticed that immediately after she’d hit someone - before anyone even had a chance to step in and respond to the behavior - she’d automatically give them a nice touch to make up for it. It became second-nature. She still hit, but it was a major, major step in the right direction. Eventually, she got the idea and now hitting is not the first reaction she has to not getting her way. Soon, she’ll be able to communicate her feelings with words and that’ll be the next step.
If she’s extremely worked up because… maybe our schedule is a mess that day or she hasn’t eaten well, I put every effort into calming her instead of rushing to correcting the behavior of throwing things or hitting that’s resulted from her being out of whack. I hold her and sing to her and even dim the lights - anything to slow her heartbeat and make her feel safe. Again, it’s made all the difference. I used to feel very strongly that coddling a child after they acted out aggressively would spoil them into thinking that hitting would be rewarded. But at this age, where sophisticated concepts like self-control can’t be explained to them yet, all I can say is that this technique has gotten us the desired result (short and long term) where everything else we tried at that age with our first child, was a crash and burn. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience, but the results are astonishing. It goes to show what stress can bring out in the best of us at any age.
So, taking this idea, I’ve started applying it to Matthew when I can tell he’s acting out because emotionally, he’s just reached the end of his rope. His rope being what he can tolerate with a level head and good judgment. And when does this usually occur? When Mary is driving him out of his ever-lovin’ mind. (Half the time, she isn’t actually treating him unfairly - he just perceives it that way. In either case, the stress caused is the same.) It’s easy to want to put my foot down when he’s fighting over something ridiculous with her and say: Matthew, that’s enough! Mary has her door locked because she doesn’t want you interrupting her phone conversation. You cannot go in there to play on her keyboard. Find something else to do or you can cry about it in the calm-down corner! On the one hand, sure - he’s old enough to understand that this is not an unreasonable request.
But few of us have the capacity for self-control to act completely ourselves under a great deal of stress. Even as adult we do things we shouldn’t. Think of running really late to something important: we cuss, we snap at people totally unconnected to our issue, we slam things. Even totally rational things that get in our way make us want to explode.
With that in mind, the idea of a reasonable request not registering with a four-year-old who’s caught up in his own highly stressful situation is not exactly unorthodox. I could put him in time-out, adding to his feelings of injustice when he’s already going out of his mind.
-- Or I can pick him up, hear him out, offer him a glass of milk while we talk and then try to reason with him once he’s gotten all of that anger off of his chest. This way, I’m not struggling to be heard over a wedge of irrational hostility and defensiveness. Instead of hitting me and calling me stupid because the rage is more than he can handle - and then me having to pile on more consequences, I’m having a conversation with my son. He’s contributing to the exchange of ideas because he’s thankful to be heard. He doesn’t get his way, but by the end of our talk, he doesn’t mind anymore. It’s a win/win. Long term, it’s helped him to understand that he actually can come to me when he wants to “tattle” on his sister because he knows that I’ll listen. And I will, because it’s more pleasant in every way for every one of us than forcing him into submission with a bunch of hostility that winds up with all three of us feeling agitated. When he can’t get his way with his sister, knowing that he can come to me and vent becomes more appealing to him than retaliating, which does end in a consequence.
I’m not any more tolerant than I used to be of his unacceptable behavior, I just have more control over the situation because I’ve found an easier way to reach him. Like with Scarlett. Like with Mary.
I read once in a book about marriage that sometimes our perception of the people we’re really close to get stuck in this place of negativity. We get so familiar with their faults and anticipate their irritating habits so much that we stop hearing what they have to actually say, focused as we are on this just being one more example of them doing that thing that gets under our skin. It said that when you find this happening inside of your marriage, that you should try imagining your spouse as a baby. Picturing them in such a vulnerable and innocent state supposedly makes it easier for us to give validation to the way that they feel, instead of immediately jumping to the easy conclusion that they’re just being ridiculous and stubborn. I guess this is kind of the same. A way to look at the kids with a pair of fresh eyes and an open mind.