Maddie, my 2-year-old daughter, recently had a terrible cold, which kept her coughing most of the day and night.
In an act of empathy that touched my heart, Gracie, my 5-year-old daughter, made her sister a stack of get-well cards. Each card had a hand-drawn picture of the two of them side by side, with messages so specific that Gracie needed my help spelling nearly every word: “I hope you can stop coughing,” “I wish you could make beautiful pictures,” “I wish you could go back to your smile.”
I knew the cards aptly demonstrated Gracie’s temperament, but I also knew Maddie would respond by demonstrating hers.
“NO!” Maddie scoffed when Gracie tried to hand over her gift. My feisty, fiercely independent toddler didn’t even want to look at the cards her sister had made for her.
I probably could have put Maddie in a “timeout” at that moment. Or perhaps I should have swept in to give Gracie a hug.
Instead, I did what I usually do when I see my little girls quarrel: nothing.
It doesn’t upset me when my daughters fight. More often, I find it amusing.
I know this is a position that baffles some friends who have bickering children of their own. Some have warned me for years that when my daughters reached the fighting ages, it would break my heart. Others complain that refereeing fights becomes a full-time job on top of parenting.
And while I’m not superhuman — of course the screaming, whining, scratching and crying is annoying — it has never given me reason to think that my daughters will not be close eventually.
Most of this attitude comes from my own experience. When I was a kid, my sister Gigi and I fought on a daily, if not hourly, basis. We fought when my grandma, our babysitter, forced me to bring Gigi along with me on play dates. We fought when one of us wouldn’t give up the sticker the other wanted. We fought when we saw an Easter egg dye commercial on TV with a mascot named Dudley the rabbit, and then spent the rest of the day calling each other “Dudley.”
Some fights were so bad, my grandma herself would sob in frustration.
Yet today, anyone who knows me knows that Gigi is my best friend, my most loyal supporter, and my go-to companion for anything from hip-hop yoga class to the clearance racks at Nordstrom Rack.
Our experience mirrors research that shows siblings, as children, often have “ambivalent relationships,” which are characterized by positive and negative feelings. But the range of feelings actually helps children to learn about how to interact with people and conflict in the world.
“Sibling relationships are very safe relationships for children to explore,” said Laurie Kramer, who spent nearly two decades studying the topic at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
“If you were engaging in some of those negative kinds of behaviours — fighting, teasing, hurt feelings — with a friend during childhood, that friendship might not be able to be sustained,” she said. “With siblings, you know that unless the scars are really, really deep, they’re both going to be at that breakfast table tomorrow.”
Kramer said she is frequently asked what the secret is for fostering close relationships between siblings, and while there is not a magic recipe, there are some approaches known for bringing positive results.
Thankfully, Kramer commended me for not getting upset about my daughter’s fights. In general, she said it’s most helpful for parents to expect some level of conflict and negativity as siblings grow up together.
A parent should feel inclined to intervene only if the negative squabbles feel noticeably more frequent than the positive interactions. Yet even then, instead of scolding or lecturing children, use language that encourages them to work through the conflict themselves.
“Say something simple that could be adopted: ‘I’m really sorry to see you threw that across the room. That must’ve hurt your sister’s feelings. Is there another way you could have told her how you feel?’ ” Kramer suggested.
Kramer also encourages building more positive experiences for siblings into the family routine. If siblings all have a good time swimming, book more time as a family to do that. These shared positive experiences become harder to come by in an age when each child tends to have his or her own set of activities and schedules, Kramer said.
A few days after the get-well card incident, Maddie’s cough had disappeared and she rediscovered the cards on a table. She proudly showed them off to our nanny, saying “Gracie made these for me.” By then, Gracie had forgotten about her sister’s earlier rebuke and was deep into an activity she had come up with for both of them: collecting Disney stuffed animals to bring to the ice show we were scheduled to attend.
Because both of my girls share a love for Disney movies, I’m sure it’s going to be a positive experience they will cherish. I’m sure there will be an argument or two over who gets to hold the bucket of popcorn, or who is singing too loudly. But I think I’ll be able to handle the stress.
Especially because my sister is coming with us.
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