This post originally appeared on The Mommy Times in January, 2009. The Mommy Times is now Paging Supermom. Republished here with permission.
Q: In what situation would you find yourself intentionally balancing on top of a couch and then launching yourself off of it, only to smash your head on the floor below, causing yourself pain and, inevitably, tears?
A: You are 20 months old, and your 3.5-year-old brother just did that exact thing, which means you must do it too.
There seems to be an unwritten law that requires children to covet their siblings’ belongings and also imitate their actions, even if doing so is sure to result in bodily harm, punishment, or both. Like other inexplicable laws of nature, the sibling laws are mysteries to well meaning parents who will even go so far as to purchase multiples of the same exact toy in order to prevent the tugs of war that end in wailing and misery. Alas, those parents are in for a rude awakening when they discover that multiples make no difference: all of the children will want that one, and not even an exact replica will suffice.
To mitigate the fights over toys, I try to leverage the older boy’s intelligence and age to get him to resolve the conflict himself. If the baby takes a toy from him and he wants it back, I suggest that he give him a different toy to distract him. In his haste, he often grabs something way less cool. If the baby is playing with his guitar, the big brother will snatch the closest thing and offer it up. “Here Brady! A Kleenex! Now give me back my guitar, please!” Needless to say, Brady is a smartie himself, and will ignore all pleas to trade.
Experts, who come in all forms from actual credentialed professionals to passersby on the street, have a lot to say about sibling rivalry, and many more suggestions about how to deal with it. For example, they suggest you try to ignore such fights unless physical violence occurs, sort of a “no blood, no foul” approach. But the whining and shouting can reach ear-piercing decibels, and it makes me understand why my mother corralled my brother and me into a corner and sealed our mouths with masking tape after one zinger of a fight. She tells this story with glee at every opportunity, proud of the clever approach that she got away with in the seventies but for which she would surely be reported in this day and age. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of such tactics, so I am lucky that the little brother still sleeps in a cage crib and can be restrained in it if necessary.
Experts also say that a parent should not model undesirable behaviors for their children. I suppose this is wise advice for parents of any number of children, but specifically here they say to not model angry behavior and yelling. To them I say, show me a parent who has never yelled at her child and I’ll show you that that woman has purchased her child from The Perfect Child Store, which does not exist. In my world, some yelling gets out, and the smartie kids are listening even if they aren’t responding. The other day I overheard my older son scolding his little brother. “Don’t you talk back to me, Brady! You’ll get a time out!” The 20-month old gets enough reprimanding from his parents – he doesn’t need it from his big brother who is supposed to be his comrade in arms. At least the toddler is also learning to scold, as evidenced by his response. It wasn’t English, some sort of Pan-Asian toddler speak, so I can’t print it here, but I can tell you there was finger pointing, scowling, and a raised voice. If it wasn’t so disturbing, it would be adorable.
Parents should also not compare one child to another. It’s hard not to, especially if your children are wildly different. We can’t help but remember that Kid 1 knew all the names of the planets at 19 months old, while Kid 2 could barely say “ball” at that age. We try not to voice our comparisons, at least not very loudly, but it remains. Just to balance it out, Kid 2 is much more physically agile and powerful than Kid 1 was. They each have their special strengths.
But when they band together and use their strengths against me, there’s no comparison and no fighting between them. I guess that’s one of the benefits of having a sibling: power in numbers, and the ability to commiserate with the only other people in the world who understand just how maddening your parents are. During the brief moments in which the boys are actually getting along, their smiles shine like a cease fire in a never-ending war, making me believe in Christmas miracles and unicorns. Then clouds pass over the sun, and the battle begins again, but the happy moments give us all fuel to make it through until the next one.
Back to present day: The kids are still fighting. New solution: send them to summer camp.