When Emma and Michelle were young, I often called my mom, the wise mother of 6, lamenting, “Mom, they hate each other.” Emma was born April 3, 1973; Michelle, June 17, 1975. Even now, 35 years later, I don’t want to masquerade as an all-wise grandma. No mother of 4 daughters ever masters sibling rivalry.
I am so glad I kept journals when the two oldest were young. i could not possibly recapture my earnestness , my conviction I had a magic solution to sibling rivalry.
Fall 1976–When Emma (3 1/2) came home from nursery school, she asked me to read Green Eggs and Ham. She settled on my lap in the small black chair, and I began to read. Michelle (17 months) immediately came over protesting, tried to climb into the chair. I assumed she wanted to listen to the story, so I asked Emma to move to the couch, so we all could fit. But then Michelle started grabbing the book, bringing me her books to read.
Finally Michelle used one of the cardboard blocks to climb on the ottoman; from there she lunged for the big black chair where Emma was sitting with Anne and Elizabeth. She didn’t quite make it and had to be rescued, but she had achieved her purpose–the reading stopped. I’ve noticed that she often starts fussing if someone picks up Emma, reads to her, pays her exclusive attention in any way, shape, or form
I’m glad to see such self-assertion on her part, even though I feel pulled in two directions now, with both of them clamoring for exclusive attention. It frees me from being Michelle’s defender. More and more I can let them learn to handle their disputes by themselves. I know Emma’s worst won’t really hurt Michelle, and Michelle’s protests more than enough to warn me if any mayhem is actually occurring. Once or twice lately I’ve rushed in ready to scold Emma, when Michelle’s protests had absolutely nothing to do with her. Emma’s being away at school mornings seems to have encouraged Michelle to increase her demands. If she could get rid of Emma in the mornings, why not all day?
After describing this revealing incident, I earnestly tried to establish rules for myself As the oldest of six, I probably overidentified with Emma. I read my rules to Anne Emma, when her son 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, 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 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 have 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.
In my defense, my daughters are all very close to one another and form a wonderful support system.