Raising Siblings to Get Along Like Cats & Dogs

LETTING GO

My girls had reached the age where I was ready to grant them the freedom to leave the home without adult supervision. We have tennis courts within a five-minute walk from our home. The girls had asked if they could walk there together and I agreed. Not twenty minutes later they were already back. Mikella needed to use the washroom.

“I’m going to go ahead since you have your scooter, okay? I’ll wait for you at the corner,” Yasmine told her, and off she went.

I figured I’d watch Mikella head off around the bend to meet up with her sister which proved to be a wise decision since she returned only a few minutes later.

“I can’t find her!” she told me, clearly nervous about having been left alone. I joined her in her search for Yasmine, consciously filtering my thoughts. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Yasmine is fine,” I told myself. Lo and behold, there she was waiting at the other corner…the one down the street. The girls had not realized that there were in fact two corners along the path to the tennis courts. Yasmine had assumed Mikella would feel comfortable enough to meet at the corner that required them to cross the street, not the first one that seemed inconsequential to her. While one child was busy feeling scared and abandoned, the other was feeling irritated and defensive. This was a perfect opportunity to focus their attention on the bigger picture.

“Girls, it was just a misunderstanding,” I explained, “There’s no need to place blame. What matters most is that each of you was trying to do the right thing. Mikella, you cared about being safe and making sure your sister was with you, and likewise, Yasmine, you were waiting for your sister, and even though it was taking a really long time, you didn’t give up and leave. You kept waiting, knowing that she was counting on you to be at the corner. The love and care you have just shown to one another is precious. We all misunderstand each other sometimes. Now we know. Now it’s clear. Off you go and enjoy yourselves.” And that’s just what they did. Yasmine’s defensiveness melted away, having been shown that her feelings were connected to her instinctive, loving need to protect her sister. Mikella felt reassured of her sister’s love, since at first the lack of her presence at her perceived meeting point had made her feel abandoned and unimportant.

How many variations of this conversation could we imagine instead? And how different would the outcomes have been? If I had not had the wherewithal to stay calm and see the forest for the trees, the situation could have degenerated very quickly. If I had allowed fear to take the reins I may have said things like, “Yasmine, how could you go ahead of your sister like that!?” or “What were you thinking? I was counting on you!” or even, “Clearly neither of you are ready to be trusted on your own!” How destructive would comments (or judgements) such as these have been?

We don’t just raise individual children. We raise siblings. We are constantly creating our family life which means finding the balance between respecting the individual and fostering mutual kindness and respect. This balancing act is alive and ever-changing. When we don’t like the road we’re on, we can change the course. It’s easier than we may think. It requires an investment of time and energy, but it is time and energy well-spent, I promise.

It is up to us to coach our children in how to get along. We cannot be confused when our kids do not live together harmoniously if we have not been modeling it and explicitly showing them how to replace their competitive or simply hurtful actions (often based in ego and insecurity) with more loving ones. We can coach them to see themselves in a different light. We have the opportunity to guide their understanding of family life. They should not be the ones setting the boundaries (or lack thereof), that is our job as parents. The following scripts have been very helpful in our home.

THE ROLE OF THE OLDER SIBLING

Here as a version of the message our eldest child, Yasmine, has been receiving over the years:

“Being the older sibling means you get to be first at all kinds of things. You will be the first to learn to ride a bike, the first to walk to the corner store by yourself, and the first to learn to drive a car. With these advantages come responsibilities. You will be asked to look out for your younger sibling, whether it’s to accompany her on her first bike ride or to join her on her first walk to the park. The love and attention you offer your younger sister will come back to you ten-fold. She will admire you in a way you can only begin to imagine. She may not always show it, but your approval, encouragement and support means the world to her. Your sister struggles to be ‘just as good’ as you. You will never know what it is to be the youngest in the family. You must show her understanding and compassion as she tries to keep pace with you. For every one thing you admire in her, she admires ten more things about you. That is the reality of having the eyes of a younger sibling watching you every step of the way. The words you speak to her have more power than you can truly comprehend. Be mindful of how you treat her. It is a privilege to be the oldest. It is the place your soul chose for you and it is not to be taken lightly. You are such a wonderful older sister and it’s obvious to us that your soul chose the perfect place for you.”

THE ROLE OF THE YOUNGER SIBLING

And now here is a version of the message Mikella, our second and youngest child, has been receiving over the years:

“Being in second place means you often have the impression of needing to be more patient, although in fact the opposite is often true. You will have to sit by and watch your older sibling do things for which you are not yet old enough and it may feel unfair and you may feel jealous, yet, chances are, given the fact that you have an older sibling to look out for you, you will enjoy these experiences at a younger age than she ever did. While Yasmine was eight years old before she could ride her bike around the block on her own, you got to enjoy that freedom from the age of six since she was out there with you. The fact that you are not the first child means that we as parents have already learned a few lessons ourselves, and we may be less worried and strict about things like eating candy, watching television or going to bed late. Even though you feel frustrated sometimes at watching her do things that you simply cannot yet do, you must remind yourself that your soul chose to be the youngest in the family. This is the place in which you are meant to be. We are grateful that your soul chose us to be your family. We had to wait a few years for you to arrive and are we ever glad you did!”

The bottom line is this: It is not normal for siblings to fight constantly. It may be a common occurrence in many homes but that does not mean it needs to be that way. As parents we can, and should, require more of them. Home is where we hang our heart. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to make new memories. What kind are we making? If you wish to improve the energy in your home, then it’s time that you do something about it. Change your beliefs, change your reality. This is why we explicitly talk to our children about their roles in the family through the lens of their soul. Like this, they see how choices have actually been made for them by their very own spirit (rather than dictated to them by us, the parents.) A reminder such as, “This is the only sister/brother you will ever have, you need to take care of each other,” can go a long way in guiding your children on the path of being lifelong friends.

Photo credit goes to b1ue5ky from http://www.flickr.com

A Healthier Version of Normal

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

 

Since none of us can truthfully claim that we never make assumptions, it’s time to replace this inaccurate ideology with a more appropriate one. I propose the following:

 

“Always question assumptions that give you a dramatic emotional response.”

 

It is when our assumptions create noise in our heads that we need to pay attention. When a situation brings about a strong emotion, than empathy and kindness need to be called upon for assistance before we can trust our interpretation. Too often, we can feel so sure of our judgement of a situation and act on our beliefs without fully entertaining other possibilities. We may think that we are helping by coming to someone’s defense, but if we have not properly questioning the other side of the story, we may be doing more than harm than good.

 

Consider the following common scenario. A child, let’s call him Trenton, comes running up to you. “William said I’m mean!” he cries. He is clearly agitated and hurt by the unkind words spoken about him. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have dealt with this type of accusation. A typical, familiar response might be, “You go tell William he hurt your feelings,” or “William, that’s not nice! You need to apologize.” While these types of responses are well-intentioned, they do very little in terms of helping Trenton to understand what’s actually going on inside of him. To truly help Trenton and to turn this into a learning experience, we need him to question his reaction by speaking to his heart as well as his mind. We must help him to see that he has just made an assumption and that in order for William’s accusation to be so upsetting, a part of Trenton had to actually agree with William.

 

Let’s back up to when Trenton comes running over upset about William calling him mean. Here is an example of how I might respond.

 

“Why would William say that about you, Trenton?” I’ll ask him in a neutral voice.

 

“He says I pushed him to the ground, but I didn’t! I was running and I bumped into him.”

 

“So William assumed you knocked him over on purpose, but you want him to understand that it was an accident?”

 

“Ya, but now he thinks I’m mean!”

 

“Is he right?”

 

“No. It’s not fair that he said that, it’s not true.”

 

“How did you react, Trenton? Were you calm and did you kindly apologize right away? Or did you get angry and defensive when he accused you of being mean?”

 

“…I got angry, but only because it wasn’t true!”

 

“Do you want me to let you in on a little secret, Trenton? The only person who ever really needs to know the truth, is you. When you know the truth, you do not need to get upset at all. Since you know what really happened, you can stay calm and apologize wholeheartedly. I know it doesn’t feel fair that he accused you, but by you getting angry in return, it makes it seem like you have something to hide and that you aren’t telling the truth. Accidents are going to happen. When people see you staying calm and sincerely apologizing, then it is easier for them to see the truth.”

 

There is a pause as Trenton digests this information, and then he asks, “But what do I do now? He already thinks I’m mean.”

 

“Is it true?”

 

“No.”

 

“So prove it. Your actions speak louder than words, Trenton. Say sorry to him like you really mean it. That ought to be enough for him to see that you were not trying to be mean. Haven’t you ever wrongly accused someone before? This is a chance for you to think twice about your own reaction the next time something like this happens to you. It’s also a chance for you to question if what other people say is true, especially when it’s unkind. We can’t control how someone else is going to treat us or react to us. We can only control how we respond to them. You have to admit that it is fair to expect someone could be upset when they suddenly get knocked to the ground.”

 

“Ya, I guess that’s true.”

 

“Okay, let’s go see William together to clear this up.”

 

As we approach William, it is clear he has been expecting us. As I address him, my goal is to disarm him. “Hey, William, are you alright?” I ask in a mildly concerned voice.

 

At this point, William has had time to realize that he overreacted and that it really was just an accident. Otherwise, Trenton would not have wasted his time going to get a teacher involved. “I’m fine,” William responds.

 

My next step is to model the generosity of spirit that I wish to inspire in both of them when future misunderstandings occur. “It seems Trenton really surprised you when he accidentally knocked you to the ground. Are you still angry about that or is it okay now?” Phrasing it this way gives William the opportunity to no longer be angry. The power of choice is huge and can be used to resolve countless conflicts. Otherwise, children may not even realize that they have the option to let go.

 

“It’s okay,” William replies.

 

“Did you know that Trenton feels really bad over what happened? He wants you to know he really wasn’t trying to be mean. Did he apologize to you?”

 

“Sort of.”

 

“Did you maybe get a little too upset with him?”

 

“Maybe…”

 

“Thank you for your honesty, William. Neither one of you meant for this to happen. You were both surprised and didn’t react in the best way. It happens. How about you both clearly and calmly say sorry to each other and we can put this behind us.”

 

I love watching the transformation on children’s faces as they realize the truth. The ability to empathize exists in all of us. We need only call attention to it and it will appear to serve us. The more we cultivate it, the more harmonious our daily interactions with others will be. We cannot help the fact that our ego is typically on the front lines, ready to defend us. It is the ego’s job after all to keep us safe. There comes a point however when we can catch our ego before it takes over and learn to be more generous and empathetic in any given situation.

 

Now, some of you may be thinking that I put an awful lot of thought and effort into something rather trivial. I beg to differ. Neglecting to take the time to give these boys tools to resolve a conflict in an empathetic and peaceful manner would be a missed opportunity. Conflict resolution courses are great, but nothing serves anyone better than real life experiences. It is when we are in the moment that we can bridge the gap between theory and reality.

Accusations are so easy to make and children are often quick to jump to conclusions. Could this be partly because they are mimicking the adults in their environment? If more adults could learn to address these types of situations in this spirit, I sincerely believe we would witness a dramatic decrease in bully type behaviors. We would create a new, healthier version of “normal” for our children.

 

If you know yourself, then you’ll not be harmed by what is said about you.

– Arabian Proverb

***Featured image of this article generously provided by https://www.flickr.com/photos/nattu/