Dear Auntie Leila,
Thanks so much for your blog!
As a (grateful) convert to Catholicism and an only child, I love reading your blog for Catholic motherly advice and to see your large family enjoying each other and enjoying life. Being an only child, I am sometimes flummoxed by the bickering the children engage in and am not sure whether to ignore it or constantly get involved; if I don’t stick my nose into it, will I miss a “teachable moment?” Shouldn’t the kids act more loving to each other most of the time? What’s with the teasing and, what appears to me, mean spiritedness? Am I creating an environment that encourages bickering? I don’t think so but what else to blame? My husband has one sibling, an older brother, and says they ‘fought’ all the time and our kids are perfectly normal and fine. (But really, is he an expert?) I know you’ll say you aren’t either – an expert – but I would appreciate any advice.
Dear Jacki (and all the other Moms who wrote to me on this topic — I told you I’d go through my emails and now I’m doing it!):
The trouble with parenting advice is the expectation that things are going to go perfectly right when you implement it. After all, when you look up why your car is running poorly, you don’t want someone to tell you something like, “Do these things, pay this money, put up with the noise, and in a few years things will look up.”
Can you imagine that? of course not.
Family life is different. We can’t fix things in that sense.
But what do we know? You’re an only child, I’m an only child, we’re taking advice from people who only have one child — ! It’s crazy.
What I’d love you to understand, and I hope you can see me here in the third decade * (edited to say that Sukie says: “I think you’re in your fourth decade of parenting now!” –yikes), alternately wringing my hands and waving my arms, is that the first decade is one thing, and the second decade is another.
All too often, the advice you get is for that first stage only. Ninety-nine percent of it is designed to make you feel super wonderful and avoid the reality of how very uncomfortable being a mother or father is. One percent is harsh, with no attention to how everyone grows in virtue little by little, according to human nature — parents too! But this latter kind is such a small threat that I only address it to strike it down as a straw man, the only real function of which is to frighten us back into wimpiness. Yes, we are paralyzed and dare do nothing more than cajole, bribe, threaten, sigh, and deep down feel like we got cheated.
After that? Got brats? You’re on your own.
Well, indulge me by working backwards on the premise that we don’t want to end up with unruly teenagers, an unhappy (or worse) marriage, and a sense of missed chances.
Here’s what I hope for you: That your marriage, which has weathered some big changes, will be a friendship that is growing. That your habits towards each other, husband and wife, are those of kindness and delicacy, but that you haven’t lost your sense of humor. That your children are people you like to be with. That if when they were little, you didn’t notice anything in particular about their interests or personalities, you will be surprised now to see how much themselves they are becoming; and if you knew from the start that they were headed in a certain direction, you will rejoice in seeing that it turned out to be a good direction.
And that you will have done something more with your life than simply reacted to everything your kids did or didn’t do! (My first rule of parenting, remember? Act, don’t react!)
In that second decade, you become aware that the babyhood and toddlerhood and childhood of these persons were important for the bonds that developed between you — the trust, the love, the respect — and not for the success or failure of the individual days that you went through to arrive here. (My second rule: Don’t seek affirmation from your kids! Why? Because true affirmation takes a long time!)
Making it to the second decade isn’t easy because of the traps, which include thinking the “little” stage lasts forever; not liking your children (because you fail to teach virtue — they have no self-control!); not being united with your husband because you blame him for your discontent; and in general not building up your home in the first years, when the opportunity was ripe!
So in a way, you have to live through the first years with your eyes on the prize beyond. It’s a paradox of time: While you are living in the here and now, appreciating the good things that surround you, you must also look ahead at yourself looking back and seeing these children as very little. Look at them from far above. Move your face closer to God’s and try to see things as He does, with the long view.
I promise you that you will have all the grace you need to meet the challenge if you have the right goal in mind. The grace comes from God and is the fruit of marriage. Marriage isn’t just a handy way to save on rent. It’s the one and only institution that gives a man and a woman a fighting chance at surviving that second decade without wandering away from each other — and being able to offer the world children who will be a blessing to it.
God will give you the grace. I’ll give you my six ideas for avoiding sibling rivalry — as long as you understand that nothing is perfect in this world. Jacki, your husband is right — some sibling rivalry is part of growing up. Especially a girl and boy are not going to get along well — not the way we moms want them to — and maybe that’s a biological safeguard, you know? Because if you love your brother in the way we wish our daughters did, how would they ever leave home to marry anyone? It’s hard enough as it is.
Six ideas for quelling sibling rivalry:
1. Children bicker and fight because they are in the habit of doing so (and because yes, they get some sort of attention for it). A habit is a repeated behavior. Right now, today, start creating an atmosphere of good manners and kindness. It’s your job — a God-given authority — to rebuke, correct, and punish; but you also have to be loving.
Strict. And warm. Think and pray about how you can be both.
Don’t tell your children to have good manners, make them have good manners, but warmly. Have you ever heard some moms? They are so rude in the very act of telling their children to behave. Some mothers interrupt their children at the moment they are greeting Mrs. So-and-so in order to “correct” them and tell them to greet her!
Listen to yourself! Would you talk to your best friend in that strained, artificial, frankly obnoxious tone? Not that you do that. Those other annoying moms do that. Still, these are your precious children! Use a reasonably normal tone of voice.
Tell them beforehand how you expect them to behave and then see if they do it, even if in their own way. There’s always next time. Have an occasional role-playing session where you make a game of showing them exactly how to make eye contact, shake hands, be heard to ask and answer politely.
Be polite to your husband and don’t treat him like one of the kids.
Insist that your children be polite and kind to you and to him — no “free passes” on this one. They shouldn’t whine or yell! I mean, do they have the habit of whining just to get your attention? My kids could say whatever they wanted, but if their tone was not at least respectful, I stopped them and demanded a redo. If I was in the car and everyone was whining and complaining, I stopped the car. Just pull right over and tell them you are not going another inch until they can talk nicely. It’s funny, because they usually don’t actually care about going anywhere, but somehow, it gets their attention when you just won’t move.
For one week, make this a priority — clear your mind and work on this. Tell them: “We’re getting in the car now. If you make one noise that isn’t pleasant, you will get a spank.” “We’re getting out of the car now. If you can’t do it pleasantly, you will stay in for five minutes and try again.” Imagine getting in and out of the car with harmony!
Make them hand the toy over again, this time with no grabbing. Make them walk by again, this time with no shoving or barging. If one is shouting, “SHE BUMPED ME!” then make her say it again. I bet you corrected the bumper but not the shouter! “How about, ‘My dearest, darling sister, please don’t bump me!'” If we are all laughing, we can’t be bickering, right?
Don’t lecture. Just get them to do it. Naturally! And kindly.
2. Don’t be the judge. Children are opportunistic little buggers and will take whatever advantage they can get. It’s all a power play to them. Adult power plays are cases of arrested development! Think about this!
Now, developmentally, it’s unrealistic to get a very young child to see things from others’ points of view. That comes later, and much bad advice results from doing what is developmentally inappropriate.
Concentrate on letting small children know that there is no reward for their attempts to gain advantages over each other, rather than on trying to get them to feel what you consider to be the proper feeling. (Please, just give up on that. It’s seeking affirmation from them — a no no! — in a very sneaky way.) How can you know what they are feeling? Do you remember being a child? Do you see how the adults had no idea what you were feeling, unless they had extraordinary insight and could see beyond your attitude?
Just concentrate on the action.
This means don’t allow tattling. The tattler should be punished. If there is evidence of wrongdoing but you didn’t actually witness it, punish everyone! Seriously!
Watch carefully so that you are not manipulated into the role of judge, because if you didn’t see it, you will be an unjust judge! Even physical evidence can be misleading. I never knew the depths of childish depravity until one of my children, then grown, admitted that she bit her own arm to produce tooth marks in order to implicate her brother! Oh, I hear you thinking, “My children would never do that!” But you don’t understand. I have the best children anyone has ever had. And they did stuff like that.
By punish everyone I mean take away the ball or doll or whatever is the bone of contention of the moment; make them all sit on the stairs; put the game on the high shelf; send them all outdoors; deprive them all of dessert; etc. Something immediate.
The result will surprise, astonish, and delight you, because what will they do?
They will unite with each other against you! They will giggle, find something useful to do, enjoy some long-neglected game, or decide to read to each other. In short, when you are the bad guy, they cease to find one amongst themselves. And that’s what you wanted all along.
3. However! Observe them carefully and act, rather than react! to their tattling and complaining.
Don’t react to the situation as they present it to you, but admit (at least to yourself) that you should have intervened five minutes earlier because you knew someone was getting tired or pushed beyond their limits, only you didn’t have the self control to stop what you were doing to handle the issue. You talked an extra five minutes on the phone or took advantage of their absence to stay on the computer. If you have self control, they will (some day). If not, not.
Notice that they were getting bored and should have been put to work. Notice that one is truly picking on the other. Make him stop. Notice that one is intentionally passive because he knows you will come to his aid. Make him take his punches and stand up for himself. Better now than later.
Some children are indeed more compliant than others, but don’t let this turn into a negative trait. Have you ever met adults like this? The ones who apologize when someone is rude to them? Auntie Leila says nip this in the bud.
4. Give the elder child more privileges. It’s hard being the eldest and he or she should get something out of it. First dibs in certain choices, whatever the contested seat in the car might be, the spot next to you while you bake…. Yes, they have to carry heavier bags and chase toddlers while you are nursing. Let them have some favors as well.
5. Don’t expect the younger child to be developmentally the same as the eldest, even if they usually play together, and especially if for some reason the younger one is a bit on the large side. Tall children have a hard time sometimes, because they are expected to act more mature!
But don’t let him be a pest, either. Be fair and sometimes punish the younger one. He can’t always be the victim; it’s just not possible. Everyone has to try to be polite and kind, according to their abilities. Even a six-month-old can be taught to stroke a cheek, not scratch!
6. Most of all, build family honor and unity. Put it into words.
Say, “Smiths don’t act that way.”
When you are out somewhere, remind them to help each other and defend each other. Talk about “the honor of the Smiths” and how “no one messes with a Smith!” Remind them that “we Smiths stick together.”
Sometimes it’s best to simply say, “We don’t do that.”
I’m for less talk overall; less coercive speech from Mom. But if you must talk, make your talk be not about how disappointed you are, blah blah blah — but about how their friends will come and go, but sisters and brothers will be each others’ best friends and have each other forever. Tell them to be good to each other.
Quote Psalm 133: Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
Remember my family motto post? Why not discuss with your husband the whole general idea of building family unity, according to your own tastes and hopes and dreams? Not for today — don’t expect much today! For the second decade.