My partner and I both grew up with younger brothers, so having two kids ourselves felt like familiar territory. But since nothing ever properly prepares you for parenthood, my own upbringing with a little brother has mattered little. Only through trial and error, and listening to my gut, have I found a tiny bit of success trying to foster familial love between my two children. One thing that has become clearer to me, and as my kids get older, is watching what I say about my oldest in front of my youngest. Even when I don’t think they are listening, my kids are listening, and I need to make sure I don’t fuel the perpetual sibling fire with offhanded remarks about either of them.
Knowing the older sister/younger brother dynamic firsthand, I thought I could anticipate how our family life would look with an older daughter and younger son. That has backfired in a spectacular way, because the way a family gets along has little to do with its size or architecture. Instead, I'm realizing it has more to do with the examples we, as parents, set. I can’t expect my kids to stop yelling if I’m yelling at them to stop yelling. And I definitely can’t raise them to be trustworthy, caring people if I’m letting my frustration and annoyance at their behavior leak out of my mouth when they’re within earshot.
I’m still learning, but so far I’ve realized there are more than a few things I shouldn’t say about my older daughter in front of my younger son, including the following:
“She’s Being Ridiculous”
I may say this to my partner, but it is not OK for my kid to hear this being said about his sister. Kids are sponges and soak up everything they hear. I know this because I have heard my son say “f*ck this,” which he most definitely overheard me muttering and probably when I couldn't get a jar of sauce open. I have to be careful that my kids don’t pick up on my negativity, because they don’t have the context, or the maturity, to understand that when I call my daughter’s behavior “ridiculous" it's not indicitive of the permanent state of things. She will not be “ridiculous” forever, it's just that a 7-year-old doesn’t yet realize that.
“I Am Not Dealing With Her Right Now”
I would imagine it’s a scary thing to hear your parent say they don’t want to interact with one of their children. Although it is very true that there are times I can’t even with my kids (especially after putting in a full day at work and then commuting home on a packed subway in the summer), I need to shut up about it. I just calmly tell them I need 10 minutes, go into the bathroom, lock the door, and soak up some strength to face the rest of the evening. Plus, giving them a time limit, and not just saying “I can’t,” lets them know that even though I’m cranky and in no mood to play, it won’t last forever.
Real talk: I have totally called both of my kids “brats” in front of their siblings. I am not proud of those moments and I’m working on dealing with the frustration and anger I feel when my kids are not cooperating and acting out. I keep having to tell myself that I can’t always control their behavior, but I can control my reaction to their behavior, including curbing hateful speech.
Using ugly words feels bad for everyone. We’re trying to teach our kids not to name-call, and if I go ahead and label them a brat (even though, frankly, that is exactly what they were when they were throwing toys before bedtime), I am not leading by example. If they can’t look to their parents as role models, most of the time (because nobody is perfect), I am not doing a good enough job.
“She's Killing Me”
This is not an untrue statement, but I can’t be making it in front of my kids. First of all, as a parent, I can’t admit defeat. I can be humble, I can show weakness, and I can let them know that some things are very very hard, but I can’t give my kids the idea that I am not strong enough to deal with whatever they dish out. How scary would it be for a second grader to look at his mom and think, “Well, if she can’t handle the antics of my 9-year-old sister, then how is she going to take care of me?”
So while, at times, I really do feel that I will not survive another evening of sibling squabbling, bedtime rebellion, and globs of toothpaste that somehow they don’t see, I have to pretend it won’t all end me. Even if it means retreating into the bathroom, again, for a self-time-out, I can’t let them know when I'm not feeling strong enough.
“I Don’t Understand Her Homework”
Third grade math took a dark turn, for me. At that point, I realized my husband and I had to put real effort to understand what our kids were studying. Methods of teaching have evolved (not always for the better, some might argue) since we were in elementary school and it is our job, as parents, to keep up. Yes, I resent it. I mean, I’ve handled multi-million dollar budgets on TV content I’ve produced, so I should be able to handle third grade math. Admitting that I can't, within earshot of my younger kid, would confused my son. I want my kids to know they could come to me with any problem… even long division.
“I Don’t Like That Friend Of Hers”
For the most part, my kids have terrific friends. They’re good kids, when they remember to be respectful, and they treat my children well. But every now and then I hear about, or witness, some bossy or rude behavior and, of course, I immediately want to hate on these “friends” for hurting my kid’s feelings.
As my children get older, though, and gain more independence, I recognize the value of letting them navigate relationships on their own. My daughter always talks to me when she is having issues, and I give her the best advice I could, but I can’t literally stand in front of her and protect her. I can’t just whisk her out of a negative social situation.
So I can’t go around judging her friends, since my younger one will start wondering why I would let his sister hang out with these supposed jerks. I won’t stop being judgmental, but I have to keep it to myself so my kids won’t be afraid to come to me with their problems.
“I Worry About Her”
I constantly worry about my kids. My son has a deadly peanut allergy, so I worry about his staying alive daily. My daughter is crossing streets by herself, yet she’s small for her age, so I fear for her life whenever I dispatch her to my parents’ house, even though it's only a block away.
But there is a limited forum to express these worries. I can talk to my husband, or my friends, or my mom… and only in private. Worrying out loud about my older child with my younger child in earshot might sabotage his growing independence and confidence in himself. I no longer tell my kids to “be careful” when they’re climbing or crossing streets. I tell them to “be smart.” I think saying that communicates to them that I believe they have it in them to make the right choices for the situation, and not to just be scared, and thus careful, of this world.
“She’s Like A Mini Me”
There can be only one me, and thus only one mini me. Though my daughter really does take after me in so many ways (good and not so good), I have to be careful about projecting myself onto my kids. They are unique individuals and as much as I want them to inherit the best things about me, they will never be me. And I don’t want my younger one to feel excluded when he hears me remark on the similarities between my daughter and me.
“I Wish I Looked Like Her When I Was Her Age”
Passing any judgment on my kids’ looks (unless they are dressed inappropriately for the weather) is not OK. I don’t want others doing it, so I can’t either.
“I'm Not Going To Tell Her”
I think it's wise to keep information inside need-to-know basis with my kids. They are 9 and 7 and just don't understand enough about how the world works to saddle them with a lot of my observations, even if they concern the kids.
But I have to keep a lid on keeping a lid on things. I don't want my children thinking I'm keeping secrets from them. It's not secrets I'm withholding, so much as it’s my job to make them feel safe so some facts — like a sizable hike in the dance class tuition — are not necessary for the kids to know, and worry about, since kids can’t change those kinds of situations. We’re the grown-ups.
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