In defense of sibling rivalry. By Emily Mendell for Babble.com's Bad Parent column.Emily Mendell
Did the neighbors hear that?
I hope not, as it sounds as if someone is in our playroom sticking a hot poker in my youngest son’s eye. If I lived next door, I would immediately place an emergency call to protective services. Thankfully, all the windows are closed. I take a sip of my morning coffee and sigh, waiting for the ensuing cavalcade that is headed my way. It’s 8:00 a.m. and my children are fighting again.
It takes less than ten seconds from that final scream for my boys to descend the stairs and stand in our kitchen, hurling angry accusations for a captive audience of one – me. The argument revolves around a video game. One of the boys was apparently “playing it wrong.” What is seemingly petty to me is monumental to them. My oldest is red-faced and exasperated; my youngest, tear-stained and distraught. I have no idea how this battle began, who provoked who, and which one should face the wrath of Mom. I send both to their rooms without any deliberation.
My two children do not get along. It is a difficult family dynamic to own up to because domestic harmony is still the ideal to which we all aspire. “My boys are each other’s best friends,” an acquaintance recently gushed to me. I smiled back at her while thinking to myself that she is either lying or her children are freaky Stepford spawn. To wit, another confession:
I am grateful my kids fight.
Close in age and of the same gender, my boys are logical competitors. Ever since our youngest was able to activate his opposable thumbs and snatch something from our oldest, they have been at near-constant odds. Their fighting is prevalent enough that my husband and I worry something is amiss when they are getting along. Though they rarely come to blows, the proverbial argument loops for us several times each day. The venue and point of contention may change; the players remain the same. Our oldest is cerebral, a rule follower and an oversensitive overachiever. Our youngest is an extrovert, a social animal who craves his older brother’s attention and will push any and all buttons to get it. It makes perfect sense to me that these smackdowns take place. Forced peace treaties between two irrational parties are not sustainable.
But for my children, engaging in and surviving sibling rivalry is a critical stepping stone to becoming highly functioning, emotionally stable adults. In many ways, family units function as microcosms of a vastly imperfect world upon which our children will be ultimately set free. Odds suggest that in this world, at some point, my boys will be challenged, disappointed, betrayed, mocked, insulted and/or threatened by someone close to them, be it a friend, co-worker, or loved one. Hopefully these transgressions will not be pervasive or serious, but they will occur. And when they do, my husband and I won’t be there to send anyone to their rooms to cool off. My boys will need their own tools to deal with these tribulations, tools they have accumulated from clashing with one another all these years.
They do not realize it now, but the two of them have created their own little psychology lab in which behaviors are tested and proven to be effective or lousy. They have learned, for instance, that:
When you cheat at Monopoly, people will stop playing with you.
If you make someone angry enough, he might erase your PlayStation game.
Never let the enemy know you are inexplicitly afraid of a certain SpongeBob episode.
When provoked with a hand puppet, simply walk away.
You were a complete victim this time around, but life is not always fair. Suck it up.
If you hold too tightly to grudges, you will miss out on the good stuff, like warm cookies your brother just baked.
The boys apparently get along with everyone except one another. Clearly not always the targets, my sons will also have the opportunity to inflict bad behaviors onto other human beings. But I strongly suspect that they won’t. To date, every teacher conference we have had is characterized with heaping praise for both boys for their kindness towards others and sense of fairness. They apparently get along with everyone except one another. “They show well,” my husband is fond of saying. Is this because they expel all of their anger and aggression at home? Perhaps. But I would like to think that it is because, courtesy of one another, they know how rotten it feels to be on the receiving end of tormenting.
“Someday they will be best friends.” We hear that a lot. And while there is a great deal of evidence to support this theory (including yours truly), I really don’t need to be consoled. I know my guys are going to be just fine. Whether its negotiation skills, conflict resolution, or self respect, they are already way ahead of the game when it comes to some of life’s hardest lessons, all learned under the watchful eyes of their parents, who never let it go too far. As they grow older, they will inevitably spend less time together as they follow their own unique paths. There will be fewer and fewer opportunities to butt heads and more chances to bond over what ties them together, even if that bond is just having survived each other.