When our two kids were tiny, I read some parenting advice that said sibling fights are an extremely important part of growing up, because children get practice in handling conflict. “Sounds right to me,” was my reaction. That was my reaction to many theories that I wouldn’t need to test for a while, like limiting television viewing and laying down ground rules for household chores. “I’m gonna let the girls duke it out.”
My kids are 11 and 14 now and you know what? I HATE IT when they fight. It breaks my heart to hear two people who should have each other’s backs be so vicious and cutting to one another, to zero in with perfect efficiency on the vulnerabilities that each knows the other harbors.
I don’t mean to imply that the girls are unusually mean to one another, as siblings go. I have always said that they get along fine 85% of the time and reserve the remaining 15% for the cruel and unusual punishment. It’s probably the best ratio I can hope for in terms of family harmony and conflict resolution practice.
All the same, when I hear it going on I am incredulous. “How can you say such a thing to her?” I’ll ask, trying to stay neutral about the source of conflict. “You are on the same team. I would never say such a thing to your aunt and uncle.”
And I wouldn’t. Now.
Both my brother and sister have come from NY to visit this fall, short stays tacked onto business trips that let us hang out in a way that is all too rare for siblings who live 3,000 miles apart. My brother and I took a hike with Achilles, visited the farmer’s market, went to dinner to a restaurant that serves local beers so he could sample some of the West Coast’s finest. My sister and I went out for breakfast to an Oakland soul restaurant, walked the kids to the bus stop, laughed so hard recounting a story from our youthful babysitting business that we both ended up bent over at 90 degree angles at the kitchen counter, unable to breathe, let alone finish the story. My brother and sister are, simply put, two of my very favorite people in the world, and we would do anything for each other.
But when we were kids? The torture we could inflict was impressive.
As the youngest and smallest I spent a good part of my youth being pinned or pushed or tackled. I fought back with stealth and meanness, with public embarrassment and the carefully slipped remark to a person calibrated to amplify it back to my brother or sister. Conflict resolution opportunities? We had ‘em in spades.
Then, one day when I was eight or nine, something changed. My mom had all three of us lined up for something one of us had done–I have no recollection of the circumstances, or even who the culprit was. I just know that two of us refused to tattle on the third. Mom was rightfully pissed off and said, just before stalking out of the room: “You kids. You always stick together, don’t you?”
It dawned on me that day that my siblings and I had motivation to get along.
There were still fights after that day – and even now, occasional misunderstandings and miscommunications. But they’re minor, and would evaporate the minute one of us needed help that the others could provide.
And that’s all I want from my kids. A glimmer that they get it – that Team Kho is a party of two and that they’ll do better together than apart.
This is a picture I took over the summer when we were in Amsterdam, walking home from dinner along the canals. Can you see why I grabbed the camera for the rare and elusive shot, and use it as the wallpaper on my cell phone?
By the time you read this post today, my sister and I will be driving with my mom and her older sister on a day trip, a meandering route around Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lake region. We’re taking them to see the leaves changing and stop at Farmer’s Markets and vineyards and generally just putter around. I’m sure there will be bickering between my mom and my aunt about whether to leave the windows open or shut, when to stop for lunch, and whether the radio is too loud. My sister and I will probably disagree on where to eat, and whether the tschotkes on sale at the craft stands are cute or cheesy. It’ll be four thousand pounds of metal containing a combined twelve decades of sibling squabbles, mellowed by devotion.
May my kids someday have it so good.
I am 100% certain that this will be on the CD player while we drive. No one in my family ever argues about Marty Robbins.