Saturday, June 27, 2015

Judy - Siblings Don't Have to be Natural Enemies #19

When Kristen had two little boys, ages two and four, she started babysitting a 2-year-old girl. This little girl was so bossy that Kristen’s boys didn’t know how to react. This tiny person would come in and say, “We’re going to play with blocks now.” And everyone played with blocks. Then she’d say, “That’s enough. We’re going to go outside now.” And whether everyone wanted to stop playing with blocks or not, they all trooped outside. When Kristen told her husband about this, he replied, “Welcome to the world of sisters.”

One of the first things people used to say to me when they learned I had nine children was, “Wow! Your house must be a battleground.” I can honestly say fights were rare in our family. In fact, one day the mother of my 12-year-old son’s best friend called to tell me what her son had said to her. That morning a couple of her kids were fighting, and she yelled at them to stop. Her son said, “I wish we could be like Ben’s family.” She asked unbelievingly, “You mean they never fight?” He answered, “Frankly, Mom, they are very nearly perfect.” She said she had to tell me, even though she was jealous.

Some ages are more naturally prone to fighting than other ages. Very young children are inherently selfish simply because they can’t imagine a viewpoint other than their own. Most of the “fighting” that occurs at this age happens when two children want the same toy. But even at this age we designated certain behaviors as inappropriate. The old stand-by of distracting the aggressor with another toy has been used successfully by generations of parents.

Sharing remains a problem as they get older too. My personal opinion is that children should not be forced to share everything. In my own life there are some things I do not want to share with anyone. In our large family, where so much was common property--clothes, toys, books, parents--the rule was that if something definitely belonged to someone, they didn’t have to share it. The other children could not take it without asking permission, and if permission was denied, that was it; end of discussion.

Because we had this rule so long, the kids knew that their property would be respected and, paradoxically, they usually ended up sharing more than not. One of our girls who went to college bemoaned the fact that her wardrobe was cut in half when she couldn’t share her sisters’ clothes.

Siblings can be your best friends or your worst enemies. They can make life more fun or so miserable you leave home early. They affect your self-esteem, for good or ill, and are a large part of your memories of childhood.  I remember giggling under the covers at night with my sister and being so loud our parents banged on our connecting wall. Today my sister is probably my best friend--the person who’s the most like me and the one who understands me the best, outside my husband. But I have friends who will not talk to their siblings because of the bitterness they still feel from childhood. It’s important to realize that children don’t have to be natural enemies.

One of the most helpful books I ever read on this subject was Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. This book has many specific suggestions for specific situations and also general theories that make a lot of sense. I highly recommend it.

When Lloyd was in the Army, we moved every eighteen months, and my kids quickly learned that the only friends they could take with them were their brothers and sisters. Being the new kids at school every other year, they liked to see some friendly faces there. Because of this situation, my kids developed especially strong ties of friendship that became even stronger as they got older.

I’m convinced parents can reduce the competition and jealousy, as well as the resulting antagonism, among their children. Until these negative forces are under control, parents can’t do their real job--fostering the individual development of each child. When children receive unconditional love from their parents, they can add their own strengths and abilities to the rest of the family. In addition, they can accept the contributions and successes of their siblings without feeling too much envy.

Our children come with their own personalities and with their own abilities. We should do our best not to compare them, but sometimes they can’t help comparing themselves. Again, parents can make this situation better or worse. Generally, all my kids did well in school, but even in this family of high achievers Emily’s brilliance stood out like a jewel. Around report card time it was hard to be her sibling. However, Kristen once said, “Whenever I feel bad because Emily did better than me with less effort, you would say, ‘Yes, Emily has a gift. But you have gifts too, like a great insight about people. And look how you use your sense of style to help the rest of us.’” MaryRuth has commented on how hard it was for her to be sandwiched between Hilary and Josh, both valedictorians. But MaryRuth is the one the family goes to when they’re sad because of her empathy, joie de vivre, and loving personality.

Family members with special talents are fortunate because they can use them to help someone else. Kristen helped all her younger sisters with hair and makeup. Ellen tutored Ben in math, and Ben has kept us all laughing for years. Jennifer, the oldest, was always fascinated by classical literature, and used to tell everybody stories from Greek mythology. For years they knew the myths as “Jen’s stories.” Jennifer always ended her stories happily, so it was a shock when the kids studied the Greek myths in school and discovered their real endings.

Sometimes a loved and respected older sibling can talk to one of the younger ones in such a way and about a particular subject more effectively than the parents can. For example, Josh had a lot to do with teaching Ben social skills because Ben absolutely revered him. Emily was able to give Hilary some good dating advice based on painful personal experience. In these and other instances I was unable to help for various reasons and was extremely grateful to my kids for helping my other kids.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Judy - Parents, Lighten Up! #18

Having spoken about the importance of structure and limits, I’m now going to stress that the only way to live through your child’s early years (let alone the early years of several children) is to LIGHTEN UP. Most things are not a matter of life and death; save your no’s, your yelling, and your worrying for the things that are important.

Actually, it’s hard to remain rigid with small children because--prepare yourself--they are going to embarrass you, probably in public. I’ll never forget the times I took our oldest daughter to the orthodontist with three little ones in tow. Hilary was four, MaryRuth was two, and Josh was a crawling baby. I tried to take stuff for the younger ones to do, but we usually had to wait at least an hour in a crowded waiting room, and all my preparations wore a little thin.

On a typical day, I looked up to see MaryRuth coloring all over a wooden chair with a white crayon. Since we were in a dentist’s office, I found some toothpaste and managed to work it off with a paper towel. Hilary had to go to the bathroom and announced it loudly. While I was taking her, Josh pulled down the plant from the window sill. When I came back, I tried to sweep up the dirt surreptitiously with a magazine cover. This whole time people watched us over the tops of their magazines, but no one said a word. And every visit was similar.

If you’re easily embarrassed, when you have small children you’ll either get over it, learn to live with it, or die. A friend told me about taking her two-year-old son clothes shopping. She decided to be brave and try on some things for herself, and took the little boy into the dressing room with her. Just as she had taken off her dress and was standing in her slip, he dashed out the door. Unthinking, she ran out after him. Fortunately it was the women’s section of a department store because she was zipping through the racks in her little white unmentionables trying to catch her son. She finally cornered him in the shoe section and with all the dignity she could muster, she carried him kicking and screaming back to the dressing room, trying to ignore the stares of the other shoppers.

Once my sister, Marilyn, and I were in a department store with her three-year-old daughter, Valerie. Valerie knew lots of words, but usually couldn’t say them clearly. While we were looking through the racks, Valerie pointed and said loudly and as clear as a bell, “That lady has funny hair.” It was too late to shush her, so we just quickly left.

At least Marilyn never saw that lady with the funny hair again. I once invited some of my husband’s colleagues over for dinner. I’d never met them before, but they seemed like nice people. The wife, Sarah, and I were in the kitchen putting the final touches on dinner. Three-year-old Jennifer wandered in brushing her hair while I mixed up the punch in a big punch bowl. Before I realized what she was doing, Jennifer reached out and stirred the punch with her hair brush, then tilted back her head and shook the drops of liquid from the brush into her mouth. It all happened so quickly I couldn’t move until it was over and too late. Sarah and I stared at her, horrified.

Then we looked at each other and both of us burst out laughing. She said, “I won’t tell the guys if you won’t.” I knew we were going to be friends.

I read of another woman who went to visit a new family that just moved into the neighborhood. While she and the new woman were talking in the living room, one of the children called up from the basement, “Mom, Richard’s using my toothbrush to clean out the rat’s cage!” Her mother yelled back, “Tell him to use his own toothbrush!” That’s my kind of neighbor.

Every mother has similar stories about times when she wished the ground would open up and swallow her because of something her child has said or done. It never does, however, and you are left to bluff or brazen your way through, or else slink off humiliated into the dark. But it all evens out in the end because in a few years, when those same children are teenagers, just the fact of your existence will be hideously embarrassing to them. As one of my teenage sons said one day when I picked him up at school, “Mom, couldn’t you meet me around the corner? Everybody knows only nerds have mothers.”

A bumper sticker I saw near a high school:


I have an embarrassed teenager crouched down and hiding in my back seat.


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