Monday, February 09, 2009

On Siblings

A week or so ago, I was watching my friend Kelly's 5 year old daughter for a few hours while Kelly went to work. We had another friend and his toddler son over as well--five kids in all! What a crowd!

Livy is like a member of the family--and I treat her as I do my own kids, and she does the same things when she's over here that my kids do. In many ways, she's just another Casey Kid, which is how I think of her. My kids seem to think of her as closer to a cousin or a sibling rather than just a playmate, if how often and the way in which they bicker is any indication. :o)

On this fateful afternoon, I had to disappoint Miss Livy--which I really hate to do since I like her so much--because she wanted a popsicle. We only had 2 popsicles, and 4 kids of popsicle-eating age in the house. Because Ryan and Morgan are prone to battles over the last popsicle (battles in which nobody wins and I want to poke my eye out), Ryan and Morgan understand by now one of our House Rules: "If there aren't enough popsicles to go around, then we need to wait until Mom buys more at the store."

The popsicle-to-child ratio not being favorable, I had to deny Livy's request and she was amazed. But, but . . . her mom lets her have popsicles whenever she wants! I explained that I didn't mind IF she had a popsicle, but that there weren't enough to go around and someone might be sad if they didn't get one. But, but . . . she didn't mind sharing! Which was so kind--Livy rarely minds sharing--it's one of her best qualities. However, I knew that Morgan--and especially Ryan (let's just say that sharing is not something he enjoys)--and possibly our other guest--would mind.

Honestly, if I could have found a way to give her a popsicle surreptitiously, I would have, because I like her a lot and want her to enjoy being here. But Ryan and Morgan have bionic hearing when it comes to the sound of popsicle wrappers. So I explained as best I could, tried to offer alternatives (which she didn't want), and tried not to feel bad for her as she stomped away from me sullenly.

It was at that moment that I realized how different life with siblings really can be. Livy is an only child. At her house, all of the popsicles belong to her--the adults she lives with probably don't mind letting her have the last one, or at least, will rarely engage in a screaming fight over it. :o)

I've heard it suggested that a parent isn't really a parent if she only has one kid. Of course, I don't think that's true at all--raising one child is a challenging endeavor, and certainly doesn't disqualify you from the Parenting Olympics. But raising more than one child--or being a part of a sibling pack--has certain challenges that just aren't present in an only child situation--no matter how often that Only Child has playdates or goes to school or hangs out with the neighbor kids.

Livy gets to go home and be away from her foster siblings, Ryan and Morgan. For Ryan and Morgan and Sean, there is no escape. (Dunh-dunh-DUNNHH!) I know this feeling well, as I was forced privileged to live with my sister and brother for lots and lots of years. My kids get this to an even greater degree than Brendan or I did because nobody is in school. Having siblings versus not--it's not better or worse; it's just different.

As a parent, it's difficult sometimes to balance the needs and desires of each child, but here are some of the things we try to do or keep in mind.

Treat each child as an individual.

This is the main principle, from which all of the others follow. (Let's pause this post for a Monty Python moment here: "You are all individuals!" "I'm not!" Thank you. Now, let's resume.)

Equal and fair are not the same thing.

This is akin to the idea that each American being entitled to equal protection under the law, not equal income or status or number of cars. (Well, that's how it should work, anyway.) An example of this would be: Ryan gets a whole vitamin and Morgan gets half of one. They each get vitamins--that's fair. But since Ryan is larger, he needs a whole vitamin and Morgan's body doesn't need as much.

Provide space for each child.

This doesn't mean that each kid needs to have his own room necessarily, but I think it's helpful to have some individual space--a room, a chair, a cozy spot--where a kid can say "I need to be by myself right now." And then help the other kids move away from the kid who wants space.

My kids do have separate rooms to sleep in, but they usually prefer to be downstairs during the day. (I actually wouldn't mind at all if they all wanted to bunk together--I have a friend whose kids choose to do this). So they can go up to their rooms if they like. Personalized things can be a nice way to designate personal space. The big kids have chairs with their names on them where they often go when they want some downtime. (Sean gets his on his first birthday.) They each have baskets with their names on them--where they can keep their special things, and the other must ask to borrow something from someone else's basket.

Don't force them to like each other.

I've heard the refrain "But I just want them to be friends!" on occasion from other parents. Yes, I would love my kids to be friends, especially when they're adults, but it's unreasonable to expect that they will always get along every second of the day. Over the course of a typical day, the older kids play together about half the time and play apart about half the time, with some of the "together time" spent in a dispute of some sort.

I remember being told, "You really love your sister." or "You should love your sister." It's hard to conjure up feelings of love towards someone who has just wronged you in some way (real or imagined). So of course I felt guilty about not feeling that way. And it's hard for younger kids to understand that you can feel two things at once toward somebody, that you can be mad at someone and still love them. (Which is why it's scary to them when Mom is angry about something--hmmm....epiphany moment!)

What I try to do is point out when I notice them having fun together, or say something like "You two really seem like you're having fun together." I don't do this too much--lest they become suspicious! I also don't force them to play together if they don't want to. If Morgan wants to play and Ryan doesn't, then I'll say something like "I know you're disappointed that Ryan doesn't want to play. Maybe he will later--what would you like to do in the meantime?"

Appeal to their rational self-interest.

When I'm trying to get some cooperation from someone, especially when it concerns a sibling, I try to phrase my request in terms of the child's rational self-interest. For example: "If your shouting wakes up Sean, then it will be harder for us to play our game together, since I'll probably have to hold him." The child who has a selfish incentive to tone down the shouting will be more likely to cooperate than if I had simply said "Your shouting will wake up the baby."

Even when they don't really like it and/or understand, I also point out ways in which we all support each other--in terms of rational self-interest. My kids do activities--and they also wait around at each other's activities. When Ryan balks about taking Morgan to ballet, I point out that she waits for him at taekwondo (and vice versa). Since he wants to continue with taekwondo, a gentle reminder that Morgan waits around for him while he's there will usually mollify him.

Be sympathetic with the trials of having siblings.

Ryan spent the first three years of Morgan's life asking me to return her to the hospital or to find her another family to live with. I am not exaggerating!

Having a sibling can be hard. Nobody asked them if they wanted another child in the family (or two!). It's a situation that is thrust upon them and siblings encroach on your space and projects and pull your hair and always seem to be sitting on your mom's lap. That's HARD. Unlike playmates, you really don't get much of a break from your siblings, what with them living in your house and breathing on your stuff and all.

Of course, there are lots of great things about siblings, too. But I think it's okay to say to a kid "I understand how you're feeling. It's hard having to share mommy with the new baby. It's okay to be upset by that." (And then focus on teaching them how to express that emotion appropriately, for example.)

Teach negotiation skills.

One thing I remember about my childhood is shouting "Mo-o-mmmm!" when my brother or sister did something I didn't like, and I expected my mom to handle our problems. Which she did. And I know she was doing her best to help us.

But the end-result of all of that Mom-interference is that we didn't really learn good ways to resolve our own problems with each other. We looked to Mom to determine the Winner(s) and the Loser(s) and often directed anger at her when she decided against us.

This whole negotiation process is an entire post (or many posts) in itself, so I'll have to delve into specifics another time.

Make special time for each child.

I make a real effort to do something with or for each child every day. Obviously, I'm with the baby a whole bunch these days, so this mostly pertains to the older kids. But I take time to read to Morgan, watch her play her puzzle or computer game, help her spell. With Ryan, I listen to his battle descriptions, watch him review his taekwondo moves, or play a game of chess. I also try to express my regret if the baby causes me to interrupt our activities--although there's a fine line between my saying "I'm sorry we have to pause our game now." and "That baby is always making us stop our game!"

Make kindness an expectation.

You might wish your sister lived somewhere else, but to loudly demand her eviction when she is standing three feet away is not kind. Ryan is able to say to me now "Mom, I'm feeling mad and want to tell you something about Morgan in private." And then we'll go somewhere else and he can express himself and Morgan doesn't get her feelings hurt.

You don't have to play with or even like everyone every second; but you do need to treat them with a modicum of kindness and respect. This goes for everyone who visits, too--friends and family and guests.

Get them involved in caring for a new baby (if they want).

Kids like to help with the new babies, but Ryan was definitely less interested in helping me when Morgan was the baby than Morgan is with Sean. Still, they both love to be involved in Sean's care, and will knock each other down in competition to get him a diaper or get his attention. Ironic, huh?

It helps to point out when the baby is noticing each of them--"Sean sure likes to watch you jump!" Also, if one of the older kids needs me, I'll make a point of saying to Sean "Morgan needs my help right now. Why don't you play with this toy while you wait for me?" I know Sean can't really understand my words--but the other child does, and knows that I won't always default in favor of the baby. (This is easier now that Sean is a bit older.)

There are many more ideas and techniques, of course. And this whole topic--as with each of these parenting topics--could be expanded upon a great deal. And I'm interested in how others handle these issues, too, so please comment!

A valuable reference for ways to handle siblings is Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. (They also wrote How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.)

Really, Ryan and Morgan are developing quite a camaraderie these days--lest you think it's all conflict around here--it's not. They spent the majority of the time I've taken in writing this post running around and giggling, taking turns making the baby giggle, or off doing their own things. There were a couple of minor things I needed to remind them about(mostly in the realm of phrasing one's words in a kind way), but they didn't need me too much. They resolved many of their own problems without my help (yay). A very typical morning for us.

For myself, I have to work hard to remember that Livy might need me to explain how we do things. (This goes for our other guests, those with and without siblings, too.) I had mistakenly thought that she understood our popsicle principle implicitly, as my kids do, since they have the benefit of lots of practice. I could have done a better job of explaining my reasons.

And even though I treat Livy as I do my kids, I need to keep in mind that she is not used to having to negotiate things in quite the same way. Well, maybe in the same way, since her parents use the same methods we do, but she doesn't have quite the same stake in the game or have to do it nearly as often!

And I will do my best to make sure we have enough popsicles the next time she comes over to play!


Kelly Elmore said...

Great post! I really hope parents with only one child will read the Faber and Mazlich book too. It helped me be a more effective gym coach, and I use it when we are near playmates. It's really a great manual for working out conflicts between any kids.

Also, I think Livy may have gotten over the popsicle incident. Man was she pissed off. You were seriously in the dog house, but I think you are out. When I told her that you asked about how she was feeling (she's been sick, folks), she seemed glad and said how she missed going over there. I think she'll forgive you this one time. :)

Rachel said...

I'm so glad I read this. I grew up an only child, so having FOUR of my own in the house is a new experience entirely for me! Thanks so much for the insight and the ideas!

KPO'M said...

What is the age difference between your children? My sister and I are 5 years apart, and I think that, in a way, makes us like 2 "only" children. By the time I was around, she was old enough to understand that the universe doesn't revolve around her, and of course, I always had to deal with being one of two children. I wonder if that makes a difference later in life.

Rational Jenn said...

Kelly--I'm glad Livy is feeling better and isn't mad at me anymore. :o)

Hi Rachel--thanks for stopping by! I know many only children who grew up and had multiple kids. I can imagine that that must be a bit strange. I have the perspective of remembering what me and my sibs were like, and the profound irritation and super hilariously fun times.

KPO'M--welcome! I do think the age spread may make a difference. My kids are all 3 years apart, born in 2002, 2005, and 2008. I am the oldest of three, and there was a 3.5 year span across the THREE of us. Conflicts were intense, but we were all pretty close, too.

I sometimes wonder if my oldest and youngest children won't really bond until they are much older, due to the 6 year difference. They get along fine and my oldest just loves the baby, of course, but I wonder if/how that might change as they get older and my oldest is off to new challenges and the youngest is still a toddler/preschooler.

I also think there are other factors, too--temperament for example--that may make it easier or more difficult for people to live with each other. I'm no psychologist, though, and couldn't really expand on this knowledgably. Just a thought I guess.

LB said...

Another great parenting post. Thanks.

I have three "only" kids, each five years apart. You'd think there wouldn't be much in the way of sibling rivalry with that big of an age gap between them, but you'd be wrong.

Your tips about treating each child as an individual, being fair, not necessarily equal, letting them try to handle problems before getting involved and spending time with each alone are important ones.

Letting them know that they don't have to like each other, but they do have to behave with civility towards one another may not be as obvious, but are priceless tips in building successful* sibling relationships in my book.

*you not only can stand, but actual enjoy each other's company.