After observing how 15-month-old Michelle could hold her own with 3-year-old Emma, I earnestly tried to establish rules for myself . As the oldest of six, I probably overidentified with Emma. I read this to her recently, when her son Michael was Michelle’s age, and we collapsed in helpless laughter. How earnest and intellectual I was trying to be, pretending I could objectively stay above the fray. Some of my advice is excellent; too bad I wasn’t able to follow it. I had obviously read too many parenting books and taken too many contradictory parenting classes.
- When in doubt about what to do, don’t interfere.
- If I am concerned that one of them could really get hurt, always intervene. In practical terms, that means always being within interfering distance when they are both playing on the slide, on the climbing structure, or on the terrace.
- When other people are around who would tend to think very badly of Emma if she made Michelle cry, intervene.
- Protect Emma from Michelle. She should have time alone in her room to paint, to build with blocks, when Michelle is not constantly at her back, intent to destroy what she has just made. When Emma complains that Michelle is bothering her, respond and help her out. It is completely unreasonable to expect Emma to handle Michelle’s interference by herself. I find it hard enough to distract single-minded Michelle.
- Encourage Emma to find solutions to the problem herself. “I’m sorry Michelle keeps knocking down your blocks. Do you have any idea how we can stop her from doing it.” Poor Emma. No wonder, she told me, a few years later, “Don’t give me any of that active listening crap.”
- Try to spend one hour special time with Emma after dinner. Now that she will be away from me three hours a day in nursery school, this is particularly important.
- Make a firm rule about no hitting with things. The thing used as a weapon gets put in the closet until the next day. “Blocks are for building, not for hitting Michelle. You can have it back tomorrow.”
- When I find it necessary to intervene, use actions not words. No screaming, no getting angry. Separate them physically. Then, and only then, try to help Emma. “I think you are trying to say something to Michelle. Talk it. You can talk; you don’t have to hit. I know how you feel, but I can’t let you hurt Michelle. It makes her feel like hitting you.”
- When one of them is likely to continue hurting, use physical restraint. Take her to another room to calm down, telling her she can come back when she can play without hurting.
- Don’t get angry. If I can’t intervene without getting angry, don’t bother. Michelle is not a helpless baby, and she is not always an innocent victim. Don’t always assume I saw the curtain-raiser to this particular squabble.
Certainly there has always been more sibling rivalry between Emma and Michelle, 26 months apart, than with my two younger daughters. Emma was 5 and Michelle was 3 1/2 when Jane was born. Jane was 3 1/2 when Molly was born. It continues to this day. The weekend Michelle moved up to Boston, where Emma had lived for 6 years, they argued for an hour over whether Michelle could take chicken off a pizza slice that Emma had paid for, if she wasn’t eating the whole slice. Molly, who had been 9 when Emma and Michelle had separated, was aghast. Emma and Michelle were married two weeks apart; there was some competition over which family members would come to which wedding.
Since they have become mothers, their rivalry seems to have evaporated, although each is hypersensitive to any perceived criticism of their childrearing by their sisters’ husbands. When I am excessively judgmental, I get in trouble with all of them. Andy, their stepfather, a miracle of tact, consideration. and understanding, never makes my mistakes.