Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Siblings: My Gift to Myself, My Gift to Them

Challenge to Blog Daily: Day 3 
(See this post for the background info on this challenge and please forgive whatever you find "imperfect, incomplete, potentially uninteresting, and quite possibly incomprehensible.")

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I have four children and am expecting my fifth.  I find that these "stats" simultaneously put me into two completely opposite categories: Category 1: "Big Family" and Category 2 : "Smallish Family."  The first usually applies when I'm out and about - like at the grocery store or at the playground.  The second applies when I'm at Catholic homeschooling events where the average family size rivals that of Johann Sebastian Bach (who had 20 children.)  

It's not really my intention to write about the size of my family and where it ranks among average American family size, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the blessing of siblings and how grateful I am that my children have a couple of them.  Whether your children have one to two siblings or live with the numerical equivalent an an NBA team, I think it's worth pondering the blessing of siblings and ways to foster better sibling relationships. 

In many ways I feel like bringing siblings into the world for my children has been a gift to myself, or probably  more accurately, God's gift to me.  People often ask (the grocery store and playground crowds) "How do you manage with so many?"  And often, my first thought is, "How would I manage with just one?"  I think back to when I had Aaron and was alone with him most days.  I think back to the difficulties and loneliness of having one baby and no one else in the house to interact with.  And I try to imagine having only Aaron in the house now, though I admit I really have no idea what it would be like. What on earth would I do all day if I just had one child???  I think about how helpful it is to me now, both practically and emotionally, to have children that play together, entertain one another, help each other, etc... while I make dinner, or work on laundry, or lay on the couch and do nothing ;) And I'm so grateful for this interesting dynamic - while many children do keep me busy, there are numerous times when many children keep each other busy and I am left alone :) 

Even more than this - the fact that they have each other and I don't have to get down on the floor to play Legos or tea party too often! - the greatest gift that this quartet of siblings has given me is joy.  I can't think of anything that gives me more or purer joy than seeing them hug each other, help each other, offer compliments to one another, volunteer to do a chore for another, play a game together, blow kisses to each other at bedtime, plan a surprise for their dad together, empathize with each other, and just be content being together.  It is such a delight to see them love and appreciate each other as friends.  It truly lifts up my soul.  So often the sibling relationships portrayed in movies, tv shows, or popular kids books are snarky, disrespectful, or competitive.  I'm hopeful that this will elude my kids and that they'll never come to the conclusion that "sibling" and "friend" are mutually exclusive, or buy into the idea that younger siblings are inherently "pesky," or that older siblings are naturally obnoxious know-it-alls.  

While I truly love this joy that their sibling-ness brings me, I am also immensely grateful that God has given them to each other for their own growth and benefit and delight. And I'm not just talking about the benefits of lifelong friendships and the life skills that kids with siblings learn. (Though, I am appreciative for those things too - like learning how to share a room, and being ok with hand-me-down clothes and bikes, and knowing that the icing flower on the cake will have to be divided into fourths and you will probably never. ever. get to eat the whole thing yourself.)  Rather, I am speaking of a phenomenon that I have witnessed in this family which I can only describe like this -seeing my children with their siblings has allowed me to see goodness in them that I may have otherwise missed.  

I offer this as one example of what I'm talking about... While our oldest, Aaron, has many admirable qualities and is improving in many virtues as he gets older, we'd probably hesitate to describe him as "compassionate" or "thoughtful" or "considerate."  These things don't come naturally to him.  He doesn't typically exhibit these qualities with Dominic or Ruth, but... he has an incredible soft spot for Clare. When those two are together, Aaron is gentle, compassionate, selfless, and downright sweet.  His relationship and interactions with her have truly surprised us, allowing us to see a side of his personality that was barely recognizable until Clare came along.  Russ and I are often so very thankful that Aaron has baby sister Clare to allow for less dominant aspects of his personality to shine through.  What if we didn't have Clare?  It's sort of weird and pointless to imagine what it would be like if that were the case, but it is very gratifying to know that she holds an important position among these siblings.  She's helped Aaron become a better Aaron, and given us the privilege of seeing it happen.

Don't forget that I'm not a child psychologist or a sibling specialist.  I'm just a mom whose been noticing and pondering what's been going on in my home.  I've been trying to encourage and reward positive sibling interactions.  And many times I've been able to watch their sweet interactions from a distance and smile and thank God a million times over.  But I'm not a perfect mom and my children are not angels (they take after me...) and we certainly find ourselves navigating our fair share of shouting, hitting, arguing, tattling, blaming, name-calling, and myriad other misbehaviors (like maliciously hiding a sibling's prized toothbrush or throwing a sibling's pajamas onto the ceiling fan so he cannot obediently get dressed for bed).  

With all that in mind, for what it's worth, here are some of the ways we do try to encourage the sibling love.  Sometimes "encourage" isn't the word.  I often "require" various interactions and behaviors since, like with any behavior that a child needs to improve upon, practice and perseverance are key. Soon, right habits are formed and good habits become the foundation of an enjoyable and well-ordered life.  And in very well-formed individuals, habits become the basis of virtue.  I hope that's where we're headed, both my children and me.  

- I *try* to avoid books, cd's, movies, etc...  that are full of sibling strife.  Russ and I recently threw out a cd we had that had a song about a kid's "rotten little brother" and a story about a big sister who was so "too cool" to hang out with the family.  Really, we'll encounter enough of that in real life, I'm pretty confident I don't need to introduce it via "entertainment."  On the flip side, stories and movies about close-knit families and delightful siblings are welcome in our home!

- When we notice a downturn in loving sibling behavior, we toss some charts up on the wall and start recording instances of "caught you being nice to your sibling!"  Sometimes it will be to keep track of something very specific, like offering compliments or helpfulness without being asked.

- I encourage the kids to be responsible for, and to look out for one another (check on each other if someone gets hurt during playtime.)  This is a tough one though, since I myself don't come running when I hear someone cry or whine.  I don't set the best example in this area!

- We encourage (or require!) them to teach each other.  I'm regularly on the lookout for these opportunities, and not just in matters of school.  For example, Ruth knew how to play a board game that Dominic didn't.  I asked her to teach him so that they could play together.  They got constructive one on one time, and Ruth had a rare opportunity of instructing an older sibling!

- Sometimes I DO use siblings to help manage the chaos of school lessons.  Aaron can concentrate on his Math DVD fairly well, so I'll ask him to hold Clare on his lap to watch with him.  He's practicing a little babysitting and I get a few minutes to work with Dominic. Or, I may want Dominic to re-read a reading lesson that I've already heard, so I'll ask him to read it to Ruth while I'm nearby.  Or, the boys will often "quiz" each other on poems they are memorizing.  It's my hope that if we continue to do things like this, helping each other with lessons will become more natural as the girls start "school" in a couple years. 

- I encourage (or require!) them to help one another.  Again, I regularly rely on the kids to help each other, even if I'm completely available to do a certain task myself.  A simple example of this is that I often ask the boys to help with the girls at meal times, pushing in their chairs, fetching water or serving them seconds.  It fosters helpfulness and gratitude between them, gives the older kids grown-up responsibilities to be proud of, and sets an example for the younger ones on what it means to take care of each other.

- I'll put an older one "in charge" of Clare when we go out somewhere and when we come home from an outing.  Coming home, they help her get in the door and take off her shoes and coat and put them away.  

- I try to leave them ALONE when they're playing well together, even to the point of (occasionally) putting off chores or lessons.  

- I orchestrate play time for odd siblings pairs when I can.  Like any mom, I've figured out who naturally gravitates to who.  When I see a chance for two to play together (two that don't normally hang out) I try to help it along.  

- I'll offer suggestions on things they can do to surprise each other - secretly make someone's bed or leave a drawing on someone's pillow.

- Praising them when they are exceptional and thanking them when they do something that they didn't realize I'd seen.  I try to make a point of acknowledging their positive behavior toward one another, sometimes it's privately and sometimes I'll mention it in front of everyone.  But I want to make sure they know their kindness is noticed and very much appreciated!  

- What are YOUR great ideas for fostering uplifting, long-lasting, grace-filled sibling relationships??  I'd love to hear your comments!

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10


  1. So, you need to make this challenge a permanent thing because this is one of your best posts! This is all so great and I love it all. I especially love your thoughts on keeping out those things that can poison our children's view of each other. So so true.

  2. What a lovely post, and so very spot on!

    1. Thanks, Erin! I see you yourself have quite a crew! They can be such a blessing to each other can't they?!

  3. Theresa, I don't keep up with blog reading as much as I'd like to, but I read this one and, even without reading every post you've written, I am absolutely certain that this is the best blog post you've ever written. I think that it should be published in magazines, shared everywhere on the Internet, and printed out and given to anyone who can read. You don't have to be a mom of several children to appreciate this. BTW, you made me cry when you wrote about Aaron and Clare.

  4. I love this! And you've given me some great ideas on how to encourage loving actions when the going gets rough.

    I do think that watching my big kids with their baby siblings is a testimony to siblings being greatest gifts. It brings me such joy.

  5. Remember our book of notes to each other we would leave outside our bedroom doors?! Or the notes you would pass me in the hallway when you were a senior and i a freshman? You were so good to me and never made me feel like the annoying, pesky younger sibling. And to this day you are a huge source of support and love for me:) Best older sister ever!

  6. I read this back when you wrote it and really enjoyed it. I am reading it again now with whole new set of eyes and love it!

    1. Thanks, Sar! (we count our cousin among our blessings, too!)

  7. This is awesome! I am going to make one of those "caught you being nice" charts today. They respond so much better when I focus on the positive. Thanks for the reminder.


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