There is this feature that comes fitted in every family car. It’s on the back seat and only children can see it. It divides the back seat and comes with strict rules that must be adhered to at all times. It is known as The Invisible Line. If a child, accidentally even, crosses the The Invisible Line, it’s on, baby. We’re talking full-scale, all-out war.
If you have children – in fact if you ever were a child – this line, invisible as it may be, is real. It is not to be messed with. Ever.
I feel cursed by The Invisible Line. It’s started to creep into my home too. There’s one on the couch, at the dinner table, even in the bath. Why? WHY? Why! I have two words: Sibling Rivalry.
I grew up with a heavy, man-sized dose of it. My brother (who, ironically, is universally acknowledged as the definition of ‘gentle giant’) tormented me throughout my childhood. He would wake me up at night to tell me to stop breathing because it irritated him. Let me repeat – this insanity that is sibling rivalry made it perfectly acceptable for him to request that I cease to breathe. I would, of course, try my best not to breathe. It never ended well.
My gentle, sweet brother and I shared a bedroom (was my mother a sadist? Methinks yes) and he, being the eldest, made the rules. One of these rules (accepted completely by gullible little me) was that he would smack me once for every time my feet touched the carpet on his side of the bedroom. Problem was, my bed was on the opposite side of the room from the door – nice planning, Mom – so I’d have to do an Olympic run-up and leap across the room like a ballerina and then accept the smacks due to me.
Even when I thought he was being nice to me, it was a ruse. Like the many times he and my big sister included me in their hide-and-seek game, kindly found me the best hiding place and then disappeared to play together, leaving me at the top of the cupboard ‘hiding’ for an entire morning. To be fair, they did provide snacks and a torch, but still.
This was my childhood. I bet you, though that if you were to ask Jonny, he’d tell you all about his annoying baby sister who drove him nuts. I take full responsibility for being irritating enough to him that even my breathing became too much to bear.
It was only at the age of about seventeen that my brother and I looked at each other and the penny dropped – we could be friends. Today, we are incredibly close and I can attest to the fact that he really is a gentle giant with an ever-present smile. Same goes for my sister. We live on 3 different continents and still manage to chat a couple of times a week. I know people who live in the same neighbourhood as their siblings and don’t speak, so I count myself lucky.
The big question is this: why did my brother torment cute little, innocent me?
Not sure, really, except that I know for sure I irritated the living bejeepers out of him. But maybe it ran deeper. Maybe he resented me for taking his spot as baby of the family. Maybe my incessant desire to be in the spotlight stole his (I was a drama queen who refused to answer to my name and would only respond to “Baby Gorgeous”). Maybe every time he wanted to build his lego, little Michelle came along and bashed it down. Anything’s possible.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I don’t believe, for a second, that he hated me. I know he didn’t. I have proof, in fact. When I started High School, all the girls and boys started to notice one another. Little romances started to bloom. Everyone had a boyfriend. Not me. No boys even looked at me. I watched my friends all experience their first kiss from the sidelines. I thought I must be hideous. My self-esteem went down the toilet. No matter how hard I tried, not one boy asked me out. Not one. Here’s a photo of me in high school – not hideous, right?
It was only about two years later (two years of torment and teenage angst of the highest order) that I found out from a very brave teenage boy (who clearly didn’t value his life) that my brother had made it clear to all the boys at our school that his little sister was off limits.
Jonny – I have this to say to you. Thanks for the love – because of you, I discovered the joys of comfort eating. In seriousness though, as an adult this memory touches me deeply because I know that no matter how much my big brother professed to hate his little sister, there was no way he was going to let some pimply teenaged boy hurt her.
My kids aren’t quite as bad as Jonny and I were (yet..?) and for that, I am grateful. But I won’t lie when I say that when I hear one of them yell, “I hate you!” or tell me they wish that their sister wasn’t born, it crushes my heart. Then, there are the “you’re in my spot!” and “I get to sit next to Dad at the table!” and “your elbow touched my chair!” blow-ups that baffle me and – I’m sure – every other parent out there.
I so desperately want my kids to be friends. I don’t want them to only discover that they can be friends, like Jonny and I did, when their childhood is over. This is my dilemma. How do I get them to like each other, to look at each other and see a mate, to play together and to even sometimes allow one another to breach the invisible line on the back seat?
I have, over the years, developed a few strategies for dealing with these blow-ups. I’ll tell you what I do, and I hope you’ll tell me, in the comments section at the end, how you deal with sibling rivalry in your family.
About a year ago, we went on a family holiday. We were in the pool one afternoon and Miss M and Little Man’s incessant fighting was driving me nuts. All I wanted was to have a happy family break and I figured the only way to deal with this would be with humour.
I did the sensible thing: I tied their hands together. Then I told them they were only going to be untied when I could hear them having fun. For about 30 seconds, they sat back to back, glaring at the world. Then the giggling started and then it became a game. Magically, they were friends. This tactic has worked a few times since then, but when the bickering is over something ‘real’, it really backfires. When they’re fighting over rubbish, however – this is gold.
My strategy is to force a change in the dynamic of my kids’ communication when sibling war breaks out. Step one is always a “WHOA! Everybody breathe, take 10 steps back and let’s talk” approach. I will try to articulate for them what the underlying issues are. For example, if I hear “I hate you!” I will translate for them – “I can see that you’re angry that Miss M’s dancing is knocking down your lego tower. You don’t hate her, you hate what she is doing.” This genuinely helps because it makes them realise that it’s something that can be fixed and that the behaviour and the sibling are separate.
Once we pinpoint the issue, I always ask the perpetrator what they think they could do differently so that they are active in the problem-solving process. This also shows the other sibling that he is being considered and cared about by his sibling. Once a course of action is agreed on (usually in grunts and with accompanying frowns and grimaces – it’s not all happy families…) they have to say sorry to each other and they have to hug and they are not allowed to stop hugging until I hear giggles. It turns into a game and 100% of the time ends in laughter.
Does this mean my kids have perfect little friendships? I wish.
Does this mean that they fight less? In my dreams.
I am so far from successful in my quest to build a family where the kids play happily together all the time, but I try. They may fight like The Crips vs The Bloods but there’s also a lot of laughter.
Please take a few minutes to share your stories with me. I want to hear about your own experiences with sibling rivalry, the tactics you use, what works and what fails. If the advice is good, I’ll compile a Combatting Sibling Rivalry post out of it and we all win. In the mean time, anyone want a glass of wine?
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