Raising Them Close

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Growing up in a big family, the oldest of five children, I remember how important it was to my mother that my siblings and I were friends. It was a worse offense in our household to hurt your sister’s feelings than it was to be told off in school or to forget to do your chores. Get in a fight with a schoolmate and you were given a stern talking to. Get in a fight with your sibling and you could feel the deep disappointment before she ever said a word. My mom always maintained that her biggest goal as a mother was to raise children who liked each other, and she did everything she could to ensure this.

It’s a funny thing that happens when the tables are turned and you become a mother. When you can hear your mom’s voice in your head and suddenly her words have clarity and reason. When you find yourself, immediately after your second baby is born, hoping with all your heart that your two boys will be the best of friends throughout their entire lives. When raising children who like each other becomes your biggest priority in growing your family…

To have a sibling! I think that must be one of the biggest gifts you can be given in life. I don’t think a single day goes by where I am not reminded how lucky my children are to have each other. Like when my 8-year-old rushes in to pick the baby from her bed in the morning and seeing her eyes light at the sight of him, or when my two boys build a tower together, one block higher and higher, each one encouraging the other, or simply when all four children are in the bathtub, vying for space, sharing and swapping their toys, arguing over who gets to sit closest to the faucet and who must get out first. Not only are they learning to love and play and care for each other, but also to argue, negotiate, and share. I read an article recently in Time Magazine about the importance of siblings. The article talks about how we are shaped and defined not only by our parents and our genetics, but also in a large part by our siblings. It is our siblings who are our ‘collaborators, co-conspirators, our role models and our cautionary tales’. It is our siblings who teach us how to resolve conflicts and conduct friendships; they are our ‘partners for life’. Partners for life: my biggest wish for my four children.

There are a few obvious tricks that I learned from my mom. Things like never comparing your children to each other, not even to say ‘Quin has eaten all his green beans, so you’ve got some catching up to do’. My mom never incited jealousy in the hopes of raising ambitions. I remember one sunny summer’s evening, standing with her in our backyard watching my three brothers play basketball. My middle brother was so clumsy; he was short, even shorter than our youngest brother, and he couldn’t make a basket no matter how hard he tried. My mom just sat there smiling and encouraging them all. Never once did she let on that my youngest brother was better than my middle brother, not even to light a little fire under his behind. Looking back on it, I think my brother just played because he liked playing with his siblings. He didn’t play to win or to be good at it. And I think my mom didn’t care if he was good either. She was just happy to watch them play together.

That’s the kind of mama I want to be. I want to sit on the sidelines and encourage my children to play: to play together because they want to, to play basketball for the fun of it, to play piano because they enjoy it, to draw imaginatively, to learn freely and creatively, and to build towers strategically… and not competitively. Because I really think children are more supportive of one another and are more secure in their own abilities, and happier as a result, if they do not feel competitive with one another and if they can learn to do something because they like doing it not because they are seeking approval or trying to outdo their peers. Again, I hear my mom’s voice in my head saying, “it’s not about winning or losing…” It has taken me all of these years to quell my naturally competitive inner self (I’m the oldest child after all) but I really do believe she was right.

Another thing I’ve learned, and actually something I continue to work on, is to resist the temptation to intervene. My natural reaction (again, perhaps an oldest child trait) is to step in and make sure things are always fair and right, to ensure the older ones aren’t coercing the younger ones into doing what they want, or that the younger ones aren’t just breaking down in tears to get their way. But I’ve learned that actually my children play better when they know I’m not going to get involved in their little disputes or sort out their disagreements for them, and that in most cases when they sort things out for themselves, they usually do so in a pretty fair and decent way. If my kids are playing outside in the garden or upstairs in the playroom, they tend to play better knowing I’m not within earshot of whining or tattle telling. Of course if an argument becomes physical, or if someone’s feelings are really hurt, I will step in. But if they’re fighting over toys, or arguing over who gets to choose the bedtime story, I have learned enough to know that sitting on the sidelines and leaving them to it is the best approach.

Saturday mornings in our home usually go something like this: we all wake up and wander down to the kitchen; I go straight for the coffee pot while my husband starts making pancakes. The two boys go play in the living room together, Ivy usually asks to help make pancakes, and the baby waddles around the kitchen nibbling on a banana, eager to be fed. Inevitably, Quin comes in and asks to help make pancakes, which leads to an argument over who gets to crack the eggs and who gets to stir the batter. I will ask our eldest to set the table, which, after an argument, he will do so begrudgingly. Then the kids, now all in the kitchen, will inevitably start an argument over who gets the first pancake. By this time, the baby is crying because she is starving, the children are cranky and argumentative, and my husband and I still haven’t had our coffee. If you walked into our house at this point, you would probably walk right back out.

But then magic happens: the pancakes are served and everyone sits down at the table together. The bigger children help the smaller children cut their pancakes, they pass the jam and powdered sugar back and forth, and they politely pass the fruit around the table, each one taking their fair share. The bickering is quickly forgotten as bellies are filled with food. After breakfast, they’ll thank their dada for the pancakes, ask to be excused, clear their plates to the kitchen sink and run off together to play in the living room. Usually at this point, my husband and will I sit for a bit longer, finishing our coffee and planning out our weekend. We can hear the sound of children’s laughter coming from the other room, the sound of the four of them playing together. There is no television, no computer games, just good old-fashioned playing: we can hear dinosaurs roaring, airplanes landing, pirate ships crashing, princesses on horses, and the sounds of towers being built.

My husband and I sit across from each other at the breakfast table, an unspoken sense of gratitude swirling between us. We know it’s not always peaceful in our home, and this parenting gig is not always an easy one, but we have four children who like each other and that means everything to us.

Photo credit: Sara Welch