Thursday, April 26, 2012

Someone please create a helpful tutorial on raising siblings

I have no idea what I'm doing.

In Delaware I taught a prenatal class on how to best prepare children for the birth of a new sibling. It was delightful. I know babies. Sure, I've only had two of them, but I feel confident that I know what to do with them, for the most part. I know how to love them, smell their heads, swaddle their bodies, rub their baby skin, and breastfeed them, and I loved sharing all the wonders of new babies with excited older children. We made crafts, played with dollies, and whispered to each other about how much we loved babies. 

It turns out that I only really know a thing or two about siblings when one of those siblings is a new baby. I need some help, and I need it now. Can someone please tell me what I'm supposed to do with grown-up baby siblings, because I truly have no idea. I was an only child growing up and so I can't even rely on a distant muscle memory of living with brothers or sisters. I have memories of my friends arguing a lot with their siblings, so I've filed that under "normal" in the daily sibling behaviour category, but I need more data.

Here's what I know so far: Alyce and Shira love each other a ton. It's not even unidirectional. I expect that Shira adores her big, bright, and bouncing older sister, but the feeling, it seems, is mutual. Take our evening Snack and Show. Every night after dinner Alyce has Snack and Show, wherein she snuggles into my mum's bed with, you got it, a snack and a show. Until last week this has always been a solo event for Alyce, a great way to keep her busy while I nurse Shira before bed. But since Shira insists on growing up, it has become obvious that she's ready to join Alyce. The two of them enjoy their snacks side by side, and only sometimes argue over Toopy and Binou (Shira) and The Backyardigans (Alyce).

Snack and Show I can handle. Even my mum and stepfather put up with crumbs in their bed every night. I have this sibling event down.

But taunting each other throughout every meal, I'm not sure what to do with that. Don't get me wrong, it makes me giggle sometimes. But parents of siblings: does this ever stop? Of course it won't. I don't even know why I'm asking. They've discovered a new hobby, these two, and it's called "how much of my food can I shove back out of my mouth to gross out my sister." Other recent mealtime hobbies include, but are not limited to, sneaking food off the other sister's plate, throwing the watermelon at the dog, and, my personal favourite, the "who can yell the loudest?" game. Yes, I'll keep working on manners, but let's face it. It's going to be a losing battle.

I've also been introduced to the horror endured by the older sibling over the younger one tagging along at every turn. Alyce had settled in for some floor baking with her Nana the other day, and it took all of five minutes before Shira insisted on joining in. I have to say, Alyce took it well. But it doesn't always go down like that. Yesterday Alyce had approximately 4,864 meltdowns because Shira wanted all of her favourites. I was endlessly annoyed that Alyce wouldn't just share, but when I thought about it for a minute I realized that it must be a hard lesson for older siblings, and often a losing battle. The baby always gets the sympathy of the parent. Older siblings out there? Please send help.

I think I'm also just not used to the LOUD. That's not going to go away either, is it? I'm coming to terms with it all because, well, I like my family. But I think I just need a little encouragement, a nudge here and there to remind me how to be a parent of siblings. I don't need help loving them both, but I do need some assistance in the "is this normal" category of parenting. Is it normal that Alyce shoved Shira out of her way this morning leading to a cut lip on Shira's face? Probably, it was pretty minor and Alyce felt terrible for doing it. She sang Shira endless songs while Shira nursed the pain away. Is it normal that Shira tried to smother Alyce with a place mat during lunch today? I expect it is. Either way, I'll be waiting for your help.

One last thing: I have come to appreciate the ingenuity of an older sister trying to defend against the destruction of a younger one. Alyce spent an hour building a castle on the kitchen floor the other night, a glorious structure of which she was very proud. After suffering a few destructive blows from Shira, Alyce solved the problem by surrounding her palace with barricades (kitchen chairs). I really respect that girl.


  1. Hi,
    I don't know you but I saw your posting on facebook and became inerested. I am the father of two children (now aged 17, a girl and 13, a boy). While I am not at all an expert in raising children, I do have the honour, which I share fully with my wife, of raising kids in a family that many of our friends think is ideal. Of course, when no one is there to witness reality, many things fall apart but, throughout, we have raised kids who are compassionate, loving and, above all else, sweet and kind to one another. To this day I am not sure if it was dumb luck or design, but here is what I know:
    1. Children never compete with one another; they compete for you -your time and your attention.
    2. Attention is attention -a good shout or stern word is as good as a smile, just as long as they have you rapt.
    SO: ignore the bad and encourage the good: Children soon learn that naughty behaviour gets no attention and they will soon find more positive ways of grabbing you.

    Encourage cooperation. Have the older one help you with the little one -whatever it might be (feeding, preparing food, choosing outfits). This makes the older one feel like they have some agency and the little one will feel loved by the double attention. Oh, and when you "giggle" at the taunting, this, too, will be looked upon as tacit acceptance of the behavior. Just ignore it and it will dissipate in time.

    Never allow physical abuse. This should never be looked at as "a little thing". Rather, help them to empathize by discussing the emotions of hurt. By the way, do not do this at the moment of the hurt -the push or the collapsed lego -but after by way of conversation.

    When it comes to sharing, I think it is better to share the occasion, not the item. That is, rather than giving a toy to one or the other -find ways where they can use the toy mutually. This works and the focus turns to the play and not the plaything.

    Accept the kids are different. Many parenting books talk about fairness and equality. I am not sure this works since each child is an individual. Treat them as such. I suppose that children know little about law but have an intrinsic knowledge of justice. And difference.

    Finally (and for now): Read anything by Ceasar Milan. Yes, he is a dog trainer but many of the techniques he uses work equally well with kids. It's kind of odd but you might find some value in it. Don't, by the way, put your kids on leash!

    Best of luck.

  2. Our kids get along pretty well. I try to make sure never to pit them against each other, because things get ugly fast when they're competing to be first or something similar. I'd rather they be united against me than constantly fighting each other. Not that that really comes up, but I try to keep it in mind.

    When they are being mean to each other, I'll point out to the offender that his/her sibling will not want to be with him/her if that kind of thing continues. And like you say, they do love each other. They don't want to be snubbed by the other, and so pointing that out does often help.

    I insist that they tell each other if they have a problem with the other's actions, not me. Because how can you expect someone to stop if you don't tell them you're unhappy? I want them to learn how to solve their own problems, come up with their own play. And I try not to intervene if nobody is upset. They play kind of rough sometimes, but as long as they're both having fun, I try not to put the kibosh on it. I might tell them it worries me, because I don't want them to get hurt, but I won't forbid it (unless obvious doom is imminent).

    Siblings without Rivalry is an interesting book. They emphasize that trying to be perfectly fair is not always so productive. It leads to careful accounting -- 20 minutes with him means 20 minutes with me!! And, more importantly, just because the numbers are equal doesn't mean you've met their needs equally. Two different kids are going to value the same thing differently. It's mostly about older kids, but I think it also has some big picture ideas that are useful even for younger kids.

  3. I giggled through this whole post because I recognize it all. Protecting the older child's right to keep their stuff "safe", while encouraging them to share, the silliness (Jude and Violet killed themselves laughing at dinnertime when they ran into the livingroom for a round of "pull my finger"), the physical violence that can escalate so quickly (esp. between the girls)...the competition, the comparisons, the way they've learned to hurt each other with words to my complete and utter bewilderment. I like to think they'll figure it all out someday, and that they'll thrive socially for having learned so many lessons about getting along at such an early age. I try to spend one-on-one time with them each if I can (it can be a real challenge some days), and model, model, model. I have 3 siblings and we love each other passionately, bitch about each other behind each others' backs, get mad at each other, talk on the phone every day or two, and would have each others' backs in a second when needed. It's all good! They're learning so've given them both a gift by choosing to give them each a sibling!

  4. Thanks for all of your comments! I appreciate the advice that kids are different and not to worry about being equal all of the time. Sometimes I just need a reminder that the squabbling is normal, which of course it is.

    I love watching them become sisters more than anything.