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.