Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Brothers and sisters and communities like that

I don't think I have a greater joy these days than watching my kids develop a relationship with each other that's entirely independent of me. They're at an age when they're kind of in the same developmental stage--I mean, yes, Peregrine is much older and knows much more, but still, they're both "preschoolers"--and pretty much function as a small herd of two. It's delightfully easy, in many ways--same rules, same routines, same set of instructions for both of them for the most part. Sylvia's not a baby any more at all, and that makes her Peregrine's playmate instead of just the baby sister. And oh my goodness, friends: the loyalty that exists between those two floors me. I love to watch them figure this thing out on their own. I love that it is something that belongs to them, something I get to witness but don't really own at all. It's amazing and beautiful. They are so very close to each other. I didn't see this kind of closeness coming. I didn't predict how much Peregrine would smooth Sylvia's path growing up, how secure she would be not just in our love, but in his. I know their feelings of love for each other will ebb and flow. I know they'll go their own ways as they grow older, that they'll want closer friends of their own gender, that their secrets and inside jokes will branch out and belong to others, and that's as it should be. But I hope the core of their love stays. I hope there's a strength there that will be a foundation for the lives that will depend less and less on me as time goes on.

I've had people ask me for advice on helping siblings get along, and it's hard for me to know how to respond. Because on the one hand, I feel like I've done nothing, and I got incredibly lucky with two little ones who simply like each other and want to have a relationship with each other. On the other hand, I feel like I spend immense amounts of energy nurturing that relationship. Certainly, teaching them to work together, teaching them to want to make their relationship work, is incredibly important to me.

I've thrown this post around in my head for a long time, and I've been hesitant to put it down on paper. I think most of my hesitation comes from my dislike of how-to's when it comes to parenting. If you know me at all, you know I mostly don't believe in how-to's. Insert X, add Y, out comes Z--there's none of that in parenting. I can't claim, for one moment, that I have sibling relationships figured out. I have one sibling relationship to guide here. One. The more siblings present in a family, the more relationships there are, and the more complex they'll be. And to be honest, I think so much of sibling relationships has to do with chemistry. I think we'd like to think that there is a way to make kids get along. That we can be a certain type of parent, enforce a certain set of values, and we will have kids with a certain type of relationship. And while I do believe there are things we can do that can help--or hinder--what's already there, the truth is, I honestly believe a huge chunk of it isn't up to the parents. Different kids have different personalities. Some personalities mesh better than others. You can't make kids be best friends, or even friends at all. Peregrine is ridiculously extroverted. He will play with anything that talks to him, or even looks at him in a friendly way. He will choose Sylvia's games, if only because she is willing to play them, and he has to have someone to play with. He has an imminently generous nature that made him a natural sibling. He's never wanted to be an only child. He shares easily, and the idea of jealousy is completely foreign to him. He will give up any number of personal comforts just to have a companion. I credit most of my kids' sweet relationship to this element of Peregrine's nature. He's taught this to Sylvia just by being who he is. She is more prone to jealousy, more guarded of her things and her space. She's learned how to share and let things go, simply because that's the example she's always around. It's something I've barely taught, because I haven't had to. Peregrine just is that way. (He told me the other day that God made it his "special power" to love everyone he knows. It's true, friends. It's true. That child is not without his challenges. But his heart is so very open, and it's a gift straight from God.)

She cons him into playing "bed" on a regular basis. Where they lie there and pretend they're in bed.  And he totally buys it. 
So please understand, none of the following is me saying I've figured it out. It's not me saying I know a secret. It's just some things I've learned, through trial and error, as teacher and parent, that can help steer a relationship between two children in the right direction. It's not a how-to guide. It's a set of tools. They're not the only tools, and they're not foolproof. There will always be hiccups and bumps and unpleasant surprises and extenuating circumstances. There will always be personalities, and chemistry, creating a current that you get to swim with, or against, or across. But they're tools I've used, and for the most part, they have been good ones. (And they're not limited to siblings. I use them in my classroom as well as my home, which makes me feel like maybe, they're good tools, since they've been tried on more than one single relationship that is already a decent one.)

The first tool is to commit, from the beginning, to building a community, instead of an individual, mindset, and modeling that mindset, as much as you can, every moment of every day.

When I was pregnant with Sylvia, I wrote a post on being family centered. That idea--that of being "family-centered" instead of either parent- or child-centered, remains one of my core values both as a mother and as a teacher, and it's even more applicable when parenting (or teaching!) involves more than one child. Raising a family, managing children, is about so much more than noticing and responding to each individual's needs. Yes, individuals matter. I delight in my children's individuality. I love watching the ways they develop and grow that are entirely their own. I can't get over my awe and amazement at the ways God created them--each of them--that are like nothing the world has ever seen, or will see. My children's uniqueness is beautiful and wonderful, and I pray every day that I nurture it well.

But we live in a culture that is pretty saturated with the value of individuality, and I've found that this mindset--individuality over all else--leaks into parenting advice and affects the way we relate to kids.  And whether we intend it or not, we're often sending our kids the message that their individual experiences, feelings, ideas, dreams, etc. ought to be their top priority. We believe, as parents, that multi-tasking all those needs and experiences and feelings is our top priority. We tend to feel like we need to apologize, in words or simply in our own guilty feelings, when a child has to sacrifice even a small piece of their individuality, or has to give up anything at all, for the sake of making a community--our family--run smoothly.

In reality though, belonging to a community requires constant sacrifice. It requires constant delaying of gratification, constant handing over of the spotlight to someone else. It requires us to give up wants and needs and dreams, sometimes forever. And most of the time--if the community is healthy and functional--we don't care, and sometimes we don't even notice, because the community holds us and supports us and gives us so much we couldn't achieve for ourselves chasing those wants and needs and dreams alone. This is true of any community, and it's certainly true for a sibling relationship. In my classroom and in my home, I do everything I can to cultivate this community mindset and the expectation of constant giving and taking and living together. I do everything I can to teach my kids that community living comes first, before the pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness.

I don't apologize for making one of my kids wait while I attend to the other. Sometimes I make executive decisions without asking everyone what their preferences are, because I know what will be best for everyone, even if it's not best for each individual. I expect my kids to compromise with each other, constantly, and I don't feel bad about it. I don't bend over backwards to try to accommodate everyone, even when that leaves someone (or several someones) significantly inconvenienced. If someone is having a hard time, the others are expected to help, not to whine about it. I don't give everyone gifts on every birthday, or try to make everyone feel special on one person's special day. Sometimes only one person wins, or is star of the day, or gets to be my special helper, and everyone else just has to wait their turn. Maybe I'm tough about it sometimes. But most of the time? It's anything but tough. It just is. It's the way we operate. I talk about it like it's normal, because it is. And like it's joyous, because it is. Let's help each other. Let's help the baby learn. Let's put that toy out of reach so that the baby doesn't choke. Let's be patient, because she's still learning that. Let's be quiet, because he's sick and needs to sleep. No, we can't go out today, because babies need more sleep than big kids and today she needs a good nap in her bed. No, he's on my lap now, and he's very sad and needs more lap time, you can have it when he's finished. It's her birthday, let's wrap presents together, I can't wait to see her open these, she'll be so surprised! I've rarely, if ever, lectured about selflessness and compromise and giving up for others. Mostly I just narrate life and set that expectation. And it's something we do, not something I'm telling them they ought to do. We're in this together. I'm giving and taking, too. And kids, always mimics, tend to accept that.

Yes, Peregrine is very community-minded by nature and responds well to this kind of reasoning. But I talk this way with all my classes, and it's amazing how kids naturally fall into a community mindset. It doesn't eliminate selfishness, by any means. But it sets a standard of a different way of thinking. And it sets a culture in which kids are used to giving up what they want. Not that they always want to, or enjoy it. But at least they've had some practice doing it, and they accept it as normal. It may be hard, but it's not unfair. And if you model joy in this, they will follow. I think joy is the key. You can't lecture or shame kids into delighting in community. But you can lead them.

Of course kids' feelings matter. Feelings of jealousy, of being left out--those are real feelings. Of course we ought to be sensitive to them. But sometimes, their feelings are just reflections of ours. Sometimes--most times, in fact, at least when they're small--they react to the expectation we've already set. And here is where I think modeling joy makes a world of difference. Sometimes you're not stuck between validating feelings and belittling them. Sometimes you can simply step in, and steer the feelings in the direction of truth. You can live a different reality and invite children to walk in your footprints. Children--at least small ones--tend to walk in footprints left for them.

When Sylvia was about a year and a half, she started to notice--and be bothered--when I held other babies. Completely normal toddler behavior, albeit something I'd never experienced with Peregrine. But I remember the day it changed. I was waiting outside Peregrine's gym class, and I'd offered to hold the newborn of one of the other waiting moms while she took her toddler to the bathroom. The baby was fussy and unhappy in her carseat, so I picked her up and put her on my shoulder and Sylvia flipped. She panicked and started grabbing at me, trying to push the baby out of the way and reclaim her place on my lap. I could have scolded her for being selfish and moved the baby out of her reach. Or I could have validated her feelings of jealousy and helped her feel like a baby too, giving her extra attention, apologizing non-verbally for letting a baby take her place. But sometimes those aren't the only options. Sometimes, we can just show the world as it is. Sometimes, jealousy isn't needed because a lap isn't the only place you can be loved, and sometimes, mom's heart is plenty big enough for two. So I knelt down, moved into Sylvia's space, put the tiny newborn into the danger zone of her flailing hands, smiled at them both, and said, "Here, let's take care of the baby together. She's sad, let's help her calm down." I bounced the baby, and shushed her, and found her pacifier, and helped Sylvia's tiny hands do the same. All of us had to give something. I had to juggle two babies. Sylvia had to put up with someone smaller taking a space she thinks she owns. Tiny Stranger Baby had to enter a space where she might end up hit and poked, by accident or on purpose (sorry, stranger baby). But it worked. Because we were all giving, we were all cared for. And Sylvia's attitude toward me holding babies made a complete turnaround in that few minutes. She's never expressed jealousy for a baby again. In fact, she will draw my attention to any crying baby in the vicinity, letting me know that baby "needs a little mama time," and trying to get me to hold it and comfort it, and expecting me to allow her to help and share the lap and bounce the baby, too.

Some of that is personality, I'm sure. She's maternal and sensitive by nature. Some of it was simply the stage of development she was in. She probably would have grown out of it. But children are moldable. We don't just manage them, we shape them. Whatever personality or age or quirks our children possess, we still can play some part in who they learn to be, and what realities they learn to embrace. And there is no quicker way to teach them those realities than to model them ourselves. Learning to get along with others begins way before conflict solving skills or how to share or manage your emotions. It starts with learning to recognize others as equals, to learn that their needs and values and desires are just as valid as your own. That doesn't come naturally to children, it has to be taught. And it has to be taught at a deep, organic, fundamental level.

I'll continue posting on this topic as time allows and as thoughts shape themselves. I have a few more practical tips that I think have helped make relationships between children healthy and sustainable and, for the most part, self-motivated and self-led. But this, I think, is where the foundation is, and so this is where I started. I hope it's been helpful. It's been a great source of joy for me in all the little communities I've shepherded, and I hope it can bring greater grace and love to your little communities as well.

1 comment:

  1. This SO reminds me of you and Rebecca! All you girls were good friends, and I loved watching you all play together so joyfully, but I especially loved seeing the special relationship you and Rebecca had when you were little. And like Peregrine, you set the tone for all your younger siblings to follow, making so many things about parenting easier. I'm so happy that you are having this same joy as a mother that I did, watching your children love and enjoy each other. It is something so incredibly amazing.