We, the parents, did something not very nice to ourselves for Christmas. We bought our girls an expensive joint gift. Our daughters are like any other siblings. They love each other. They squabble. They are great playmates, and each other’s tormentors. This has become especially obvious with their newest “toy”. Their chrome book.
Oh my. At this writing, this is day three with the computer, and they have had approximately 6,783 tiffs, squabbles, and spats over it. Today they were jockeying for position after their bath, and trying to decide whose turn it was supposed to be, and I told them it was time to sit on chairs.
Sitting on chairs is a pretty de facto consequence around here. If the girls are obviously having trouble working something out, it’s off to chairs they go. Here are the rules of being on chairs. Both people must sit down on a separate chair with no toys or anything to do. Both people must remain there, until there is a consensus that everyone can get up. Sometimes they talk everything out. Sometimes they try and yell and scream at each other or me or Dad. Sometimes they give each other the silent treatment while trying to wait the other one out. Sometimes, they don’t talk at all and just agree to get up. All of these are fine with me (minus the screaming…That’s actually against the rules of chairs, and it has been nipped in the bud. Screaming on chairs is a good way to get privileges taken away.)
Anyway, I normally try to keep my nose out of what the girls are doing on chairs. It’s a way for me to NOT have to be judge and jury for every little argument, and so it defeats the purpose if I’m butting in. However, as the girls were sitting there, Gracie was obviously upset about having to sit on chairs and was being very rude and mentioning hurtful things. Nothing that was any big deal, but I could tell that Ava was getting more and more upset. And when Ava gets upset, she gets quiet. She must be like her Mama in that way. I can give the silent treatment with the best.
Grace was getting louder and frantically saying things like “Why won’t you answer me?!” and “I’ve made a bunch of suggestions for how we can work this out fairly, and you aren’t responding to any of them.” Suddenly it dawned on me that to Ava the most important part of the argument had to do with how she felt and how she was being treated by her sister. At that moment, Gracie could have offered five extra turns on the computer and it wouldn’t have mattered because Ava wanted acknowledgement of her feelings and validation. Gracie just wanted the whole thing to be over quickly and was still blaming her sister for the problem….and actually digging the hole deeper because she was continuing to hurt Ava’s feelings with her mean tone. I knew that Ava probably would not be able to communicate such a large idea to her big sister…I don’t think most adults can do that.
Neither girl was recognizing the needs of the other, and so I decided to step in and hopefully help. I told Gracie about how in most cases disagreements have more to do with the relationship that there is between the people arguing than about the content of the argument. So with Ava, the argument started about whose turn it was to be on the computer, but for Ava it had more to do with how her sister was treating her and having hurt feelings, than about who was going to use the computer first. I suggested working on the hurt feelings first, and being careful about how she said things as well as what she said.
Grace was still pretty pissed, but I could tell that what I had said got through at least a little. I hadn’t said anything directly to Ava, but sometimes giving her a lot of direct attention when she is in the silent treatment mode backfires big time. So I was hoping that modeling talking about feelings in a straightforward way would help her find the words she needed.
Grace then did something really mature. She told me that it was very difficult to work it out in front of me. So I went in the kitchen to help Tommy with lunch. Sometimes that step is the hardest for me…the letting go.
Less than a minute later, the girls were playing happily.
Growing up, Zadi and I had lots of little arguments…Okay, we had out and out brawls. My parents took a mostly hands off approach until arguments escalated into fist fights. I learned a lot about compromise from this sister, although sometimes I felt she was impossible to get along with. And I’m sure she felt the same about me. I was a masterful tormenter. I could push all of her buttons and get her to blow her stack….usually resulting in her getting into trouble. I can see a lot of myself in both of my girls. They are masterful at irritating the other to the boiling point…on purpose. And due to my expert level of experience, I can see it when it’s happening.
Mama used to call up the stairs to me. “Bibi, if you’re aggravating her up there, you will also have a consequence!”
Ah, sibling relationships. I sort of wish that I could have had meta vision about my relationships as a child…or at least as a teenager. I didn’t learn until I was married the value of vulnerability during conflict. I’ve noticed that when the tension starts to rise, and Tommy and I are at the point where we’re about to slip into an argument, if one of us can find the source of the hurt feelings, it resolves the argument before it happens.
In our first or second year of marriage, I remember having a big huge fight. I honestly can’t remember what it was about, but it was one of those ones where it starts with one thing and the next thing you know you’re airing every grievance that you have about each other and at the end of it all it’s the middle of the night and you can barely keep your eyes open let alone keep straight all the tangents of the argument or what your point was in the first place. And all of a sudden I remembered the words of my college history professor.
He went on a little tangent and asked “Does anyone here know when a couple decides to get divorced?”
There was murmuring and a couple people raised their hands. The answers were predictable. Fighting, money, can’t get along.
“Good answers, and I know that that’s what it seems like.” He continued. “But, there are plenty of couples who stay together who fight all the time, about all kinds of different things.”
He paused here dramatically. This guy was one of my all time favorite teachers, and it was partly due to his amazing speaking style.
“Couples who get divorced have one thing in common. They divorce when they see the actions of the other person, every single interaction, as those of an enemy.”
Those words rang true from the moment I heard them. So that night as this concept came back to me, I remember slumping down in our overstuffed blue recliner. The malice was gone from my voice now, and I just simply said “I know you aren’t my enemy.” Of course it helped end that particular argument, but over the years Tommy and I have both held onto that. It doesn’t come from a place of manipulation, it’s a reminder to both of us to see each other’s point of view and to view each other always as partners, and not as adversaries. No scores. No winner. No loser.
I wish this for our children. To learn to have beautiful rich relationships with each other. And that the knowledge of how to nourish a relationship will lead them into healthy friendships, and marriages (much later). I often feel so overwhelmed and frankly, irritated with squabbling, but this new perspective has breathed a bit of new vigor into my desire to help them find lasting harmony in their relationship together.