My girls, the aforementioned Wonder Woman, and Pixie Puff are two and four and a half years old. (The names were chosen by the aforementioned WW, to whom that “half” has become very important.) When searching for new blog topics, a friend suggested that I write about sibling rivalry. I normally think about the blogs that I am going to write for a while before I actually sit down at the keyboard. This one took longer than most. Here’s why…
As I am typing they are standing in a hug and watching Super Why together. PP just said, “La Loo” (Love you) to WW, and WW responded, “Sister HUG!” I am not even kidding. This is happening. Really. Now they are in the kitchen playing ring around the rosy, and making each other laugh. Seriously. In this respect my parenting life is charmed. That’s not to say that they don’t occasionally get in fights over toys, or disagree about what to do, but in terms of competing with one another for parental affection, or just in general…it doesn’t happen. My only other experience with sibling rivalry was with my older brother growing up, and that was very different. I don’t know about rivalry per se, but I am pretty sure that if he could have literally sold me to gypsies, he would have, and gladly. (PS…he grew into a lovely person, and now we are good friends, so there is hope, even in the worst of cases!!) That lead me to wonder, is it nature, or nurture? What did we do differently?
The first bit is definitely nature. WW is an incredibly smart, perceptive, and emotional little lady. But, on the nurture side, we have always treated her as such. We believe wholeheartedly in our home in the power of language, and that arming children with the ability to communicate their wants and needs is paramount to a building a happy home. There are some words that are the only word for a given situation or emotion, and we knew that WW was capable of learning and understanding the meaning of those words. Because she is so sensitive, one of the first big words we taught her was, “overwhelmed.” It is a good one for kids to know, because there is no other word for that feeling, and pre-schoolers, especially bright ones, will feel it often. We also taught her from very early on (this is where having a Buddhist for a mommy comes in handy) how to be mindful, aware, and accepting of her feelings, even the, “negative,” ones. We have explained that all of her feelings are important, and valid, and that they should all be treated as a vital part of her. It is never our feelings that our “bad,” but we can choose to express those feelings in a harmful unproductive way, or in a way that helps to change the situation and make it better for everyone involved. You may think that sounds like a lot for a kid. You may be rolling your eyes and thinking, “jeez, my two/three/four year old would never respond to that.” But at those ages the language and emotional centers of the brain are sponges. They will pick up what you lay down, so why not lay down the foundation of healthy communication regarding difficult emotional situations? You just have to trust yourself, and them. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And your child having the ability to come to a parent and say, “I am feeling overwhelmed and lonely because I feel like (sister/brother) is getting all of your attention,” will go a long way towards curbing tantrums, outbursts, and rage towards a new sibling.
Nature, again, PP was born a (mostly) calm and laid back little thing. We called her, “everybody’s baby,” for the longest time because she just loves people. She has a temper that has begun to manifest since she has turned two, but once again, we are teaching her to use words to express herself. So we are very lucky to be blessed with two generally lovely girls. Beyond that, though, we also make sure that they know how blessed we feel.
When I was pregnant with PP, we began a propaganda campaign with WW centered around the idea that as my belly grew, so did mommy and daddy’s hearts, so that we would always have enough love for both of our girls. (Thanks to my amazing cousin for that imagery!) We made it clear from day one that WW was important, loved, wanted, and special. Heck, we say those exact words to her on a semi-regular basis. We are also incredibly honest with both of our girls regarding our own feelings. (When they understand what overwhelmed means, they can empathize (another word we taught) when a parent says that they feel overwhelmed.) We tell them when we need space (Me/Myself time ala Frances the Badger) and we respect when they need space. Similarly, we ask for cuddles and snuggles. We initiate sometimes, because it is important that they know that those things are just as important and special to us as to them. Think of it this way: In your romantic relationship, if you are the only one initiating affection, wouldn’t you feel unloved and unimportant? All relationships are give and take. And you often end up getting what you give. (Karma: If you plant a mango seed…you get a mango tree.) We have always tried very hard to make our family life, our relationships, inclusive. We have individual mommy/daddy dates with the girls, we tag team bedtimes, we talk to them like valid members of our household and let them have a say in decisions from what to eat for dinner, to what color mommy should dye her hair.
In short, we try not to give them any reason to be rivals. They know that they are different people, but equally important in our eyes. They know that when WW is getting a hug, PP will get one next, and vice versa. They know that they are important, loved, wanted, and special, and more importantly, they feel that way about each other. “She’s your sister, and a sister is a special thing.” I’m not entirely sure how much of it is nature, and how much is nurture. I don’t know if it is just the luck of the gene pool, or if we have just happened upon some magic rival-less formula to parenting, but I know it is working for us. My daughters may not eat anything that I put in front of them. Ever. But hey, at least they will be united in their stubborn refusal of broccoli. It’s all about the little victories, really.