Sibling Rivalry Doesn't Have To Poison Your Home

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Sibling relationships are incredibly complex, and there’s no predicting or controlling the bonds that yours will eventually have…or have not. However, an inviolable role of mindful parenting is ensuring that home is a safe place for every person in the family. Do that, and there is a very good chance your kids will find much to appreciate in one another. Perhaps not immediately, but surely in time!

But first, let’s agree on a few truths (the good, bad and ugly) about siblings:

·      Siblings can be natural allies

·      They’re also sometimes rivals

·      The dynamic between offspring is affected by things outside everyone’s control (e.g., birth order and temperament)

·      Siblings don’t need to be best friends but they must respectfully co-exist

·      Siblings can gain great skills (how to manage parents; how to navigate the world) simply by watching one another

·      It’s normal for siblings to argue -- about toys, boys and even nothing at all

And here’s the final “truth.”

·      Raising multiple kids under one roof (or in the case of divorce, under two) can be a significant challenge for parents

Fortunately, the solution is something I believe is vital for healthy families. And that is creating, articulating and honoring the core values about the type of family dynamic and home environment you intend to foster.

      When we had our first child, my now co-parent and I were in lockstep about our parenting values and aspirations for family life. As they grew up, our kids came to know exactly what those values and aspirations were. Not simply because we articulated them frequently, but because we held everyone in the family to them. Here are some key values that can impact sibling ties.

Family is sacred.  From the start, we considered our family unit, our family space and the time we spent together as sacred. We ensured our home was a safe place for every member, and encourage our kids to try things out at the dining room table without consequence or ridicule (unlike in the school cafeteria). The sacredness applied even when (especially when) we disagreed or were angry.

Family members are kind and respectful.  Our kids knew there would be zero tolerance for bullying, physical abuse or excessive tension between them. They knew the expectation was that they be kind and respectful to one another – and to us. Full stop.

Hitting is not an option.  We drew an extremely hard line at anything physical. We did not spank our children and they were not to hit one another. Naturally we intervened when they were toddlers and hitting and biting one another was to be expected developmentally, but relatively early on they learned that getting physical would not be tolerated.

Get along or go it alone. It’s easy for parents to fall into the trap of blaming an older child for infractions or always making the youngest the victim. Not to mention, it’s easy to spot the actions of the retaliator…but miss the jabbing of the instigator. We decided early on we weren’t going to police our children or preside as judge and jury over their sibling shenanigans. When our kids seemed unable or unwilling to manage their disagreements (decibel level is a great cue), we simply sent them to their respective (or separate) rooms, instructing them that they were welcome back into the family space as soon as they felt they could be kind and respectful and work out their differences. It’s also important to remind everyone in the family that playing (and living) together is a 2-, 3- or 8-way street as the case may be, and that everyone contributes to the tone of the home.

Kids are allowed a sacred cow or two.  Teaching siblings to share is great. But sharing everything? Not necessary. Let you daughter have her treasured truck or you son claim “his” side of the room as off-limits. Of course siblings can’t call “dibs” on everything, but it’s appropriate for them to claim some things as theirs alone.

If it isn’t working, PIVOTWhile most parenting values don’t change much over time, certainly how we enforce them may. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “My value is that our home is sacred, but my kids are always at each other’s throats!” – all is not lost!

The best antidote for losing one’s way is simply to stop long enough to figure out what the problem is, re-articulate your values around it and then back that up with action – even if you’ve let bad behavior go on for far too long. For example, “Daddy and I are tired of you three arguing at dinner all the time. Starting today, if anyone is mean or dismissive to anyone else in the family, you’ll be excused.” Then follow through.

A helpful way to think about raising siblings is to be conscious about what it is you want for your children when you’re dead and gone. Like most parents, you probably want your progeny to love one another…to count on each other…to help each other when it counts. Live your values and it will come to pass. (Mostly) guaranteed.

 

Parenting as Easy as 1,4,4: 1 Week. 4 Questions. 4 Answers.

 

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  So said 19th century French critic and writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.

While Karr likely wasn’t referring to parenting when he coined the phrase, it rings true nonetheless.

While modern parents are beset by “more is more” consumerism, whether it’s kid gear, how-to books or digital experts trafficking in truth, the basics of good parenting really hasn’t changed over millennia – at least not from my perspective.

You know what else hasn’t changed? The questions parents ask about raising their children.

Last week I heard from 4 different clients, each asking one of the most-frequently-asked parenting questions I’ve heard over the years. In this post, I’m sharing them – and my answers – with the blogosphere! 

 

QUESTION #1 – How do I create even a little ‘ME’ time?

This question is so universal and ubiquitous that I actually launched my blog with a post on the importance of self-care.  There was so much to say, I continued the conversation in my second blog post!

Here’s the crux: You cannot take care of your children at the expense of yourself.

Let’s say you’re having a beyond-crazy week. What “good” parents (usually moms) think they “should” do is free up a little time by cancelling the one thing that’s on the calendar for themselves. In the end, everyone suffers, especially the children we mistakenly believe our selflessness will benefit.

Why does eliminating self-care backfire? Because if we are exhausted, or worse, falling apart at the seams, we don’t have the bandwidth or resilience to be the intentional, positive parents we want to be.

 

Trust me on this: I learned the hard way.

I was the Mom who was always available and present for my kids. I managed to put them first all of the time -- at the expense of myself and, at times, my marriage.  After my divorce, I was drowning and could barely keep my own head above water, much less my kids’. But wouldn’t you know it, in a moment of sanity, I realized they were more than capable of treading water – even swimming!

I eventually saw I was doing my children a grave disservice by always sacrificing my needs to attend to theirs - even their perceived needs. So I pulled back on being there 24/7/365 – and amped up teaching them how to navigate and negotiate life’s challenges. As a result, we were all able to recover, and even thrive, through and after the divorce.

Don’t believe it’s possible to carve out “me time”?  Here are a few suggestions for parents of kids of all ages.

Toddlers. Create an activity bag with enough toys and puzzles to keep little ones occupied for 10 minutes. It gives them the opportunity to have some righteous “alone time” right outside the open bathroom or bedroom door while you have a shower or do 10 minutes of mindful meditation.

School-aged. Go to your room after dinner for 20 minutes and relax while the kids clear the table and load the dishwasher. (Promise me you won’t redo it, even if they waste precious space!)

Teens.  Older kids need autonomy. Go out for a run, take a yoga class or grab coffee with a friend. By this age, your teens know your boundaries – and the consequences if they cross them.

 

QUESTION #2 – Why do my kids fight all the time?

What parent likes being a referee when their kids fight over seemingly inane matters? None I know. But far too often, parents become arbitrators because they think it’s what good parents do.

Bow out now. It’s not your job to be judge and jury over every sibling squabble. (Caveat: if an older child is striking a younger one or safety is at risk in any way, get involved.)

A sibling spat may not be Instagram or Facebook worthy, but it’s a fact of life for every family. Skirmishes among siblings – over having the best toys, a parent’s favor or yadda-yadda – is a natural sibling dynamic that’s actually developmentally appropriate.

If you’re one of those parents who can tune it out while your kids work it out, consider yourself lucky. But for some of us, that level of disruption and disquiet is uncomfortable at best and unnerving at worst.

What to do? My MO was to give my kids one “Knock it off!” in hopes they’d do just that. When they didn’t, the rule in our house was that they each went into separate rooms until they were able to co-exist.

Kids naturally want to draw us into understanding why they did what they did to their brother or blame their sister. But resolving the issue is not your job; it’s theirs. Kids want you to label one the victim and the other the villain. As long as you continue to do that, the frequency of squabbling only escalates.

How long must they be apart before the time out is over, you ask?  As long as it takes. I always tell my clients that a “time out” isn’t about time, per se. It’s about “out.” How long “out” lasts depends on our kids’ willingness to peacefully co-exist.

 

QUESTION #3 – Why won’t my husband get with the program?

Let’s start with the positive.

According to a Pew Research Center report on American fathers, generally speaking they are more ”with the program” than not.

In another Pew report on the division of labor in households with two working parents, things appear generally, if not exactly, equitable. 

Then there are the outliers.

I often hear from women – like the one who asked this question – who say they do everything related to child care and domestic duties; their partners are simply not engaged. When talking about a male and female partnership, it’s safe to say the sexes function differently. In my experience, unengaged Dads fall into several categories:

1.    They want to be the “fun” dad, leaving everything else to Mom.

2.    They want to engage, but struggle to participate.

3.    They engage, but feel as if their efforts aren’t appreciated or aren’t good enough.

4.    They don’t want to do the work of family life, but are willing to pay for outside help (housecleaners, nannies, etc.).

5.    They don’t want to engage and they don’t care how it makes their partner feel.

With the first three categories, the opportunity for success is great. If your partner is a #4 and you’re okay with such an arrangement, then a happy home life can be yours as well. A #5 partner is a situation beyond the limits of my coaching expertise – so definitely engage a therapist (or divorce lawyer).

Certainly, as women, we need to hold our partners accountable – not by keeping a tally of infractions and blowing up when we can’t take it anymore – but by speaking up in the moment and objectively communicating how we feel without judging or blaming. If you’re unable to communicate effectively – or if you can yet your partner still doesn’t understand -- then by all means bring in a third party like a therapist or parenting coach to help.

Here’s the hugely important thing, women with partners like #3 must do: Let their efforts be good enough.

Perhaps the dishwasher doesn’t get loaded exactly as you would like or no one in the family has matching socks when he does laundry or your daughter’s luscious locks look gnarly no matter how many styling lessons you’ve proffered.

Let it go, let it go, let it go.

Conversely, if there’s something you absolutely positively need to be done a certain way, then take it off your partner’s list and swap it for something you don’t care about. What’s important is that the two of you are more or less equally engaged in making sure the kids are safe, healthy and (relatively) happy. The rest pales in comparison.

 

QUESTION #4 – Why is my kid lying on the floor instead of doing his homework?

Great question. Why is your kid lying on the floor instead of doing his homework?

In this particular situation, school had just started. Her otherwise compliant 9-year-old son refused to answer the list of questions his teacher had posed to all her students in an attempt to get to know them. Instead, he flopped down on the floor, flapping about, refusing to do the work.

And Mom? She mimicked his flapping to prove to him how ridiculous he looked.

It hardly made the boy want to jump up and get to work.

My response to any child who is avoiding responsibility is to engage with her or him to get to the crux of the resistance. After all, a child who feels confident and competent about her abilities isn’t going to avoid an opportunity to let her teacher know just how smart she is.

So what exactly was going on? I coached my client through the following scenarios:

•      Was her son having a difficult transition from summertime to school?

•      Is he over scheduled?

•      Does he need a snack and some downtime after school before hitting the books?

•      Was he overwhelmed by the sheer number of questions in the assignment?

•      Did he know the answers, but was embarrassed by his handwriting?

•      Was his behavior part of a pattern of avoidance?

•      Could there be a learning disability?

•      What about an emotional block?

After careful analysis, my client realized her son was dealing with an execution issue. After a summer off, he was simply overwhelmed by the task of sitting down to write out all of the responses. Mom agreed to be his scribe so he could answer fulsomely without having to face the onerous task of writing. In this case, it was a great solution. The teacher was trying to get a sense of her new students, it wasn’t a handwriting exercise. And as it turned out, the boy was happy to to share his thoughts when he wasn’t constrained by the writing. 

As parents, our most important job is to pay the right kind of attention to our kids so we can understand what makes them tick – and to see where they need extra sensitivity and empathy.

My take away from my clients this week is that all parents would be well served if we regularly shared our parenting trials and tribulations with each other.  So much of what parents go through – especially the tough times – aren’t unique.  Finding out you are not alone eases the burden considerably, alleviates anxiety and offers you multiple ways to deal with challenging moments.  So let’s keep sharing.

There you have it. 1 week. 4 questions. 4 answers. Now I’d love to hear about your concerns!

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