At about 11:42 a.m., on the first day of my children’s summer vacation, I was about to lose my mind.
The sibling rivalry. It is going to turn every hair on my head gray and drive me to drink.
And I am only home with my children one day a week!
I’ve had one day a week at home since my oldest, was an infant. When it’s one on one, my kids are delightful. They are funny, intelligent, generous, and lovable. Emily and I enjoy baking, going to the playground, and running errands together while Jack is in school. And while Em naps on the weekends, Jack and I go on jaunts for fro-yo, or to a local museum.
But put the two of them together, and it is a maddening exercise in patience that makes me feel like an epic failure. It is a Sisyphean chore of breaking up fights over who got more ice cream and how to pronounce “Netflix”.
I shit you not.
One day, I stood in the kitchen and listened to my children argue about the pronunciation of our internet movie delivery system. Emily is three and still has a speech impediment and insists it is pronounced, “necklace.” It is actually pretty adorable, but Jack has no patience for her antics, adorable or no, and stood there until he was screaming at her that it was NOT “NECKLACE”!!
On the first day Jack was home with me from school, I had a brilliant idea of doing some family painting together, since it is something we all enjoy. Doing things “all together” is a big deal for me, since there is so much “divide and conquer” in our family. The age gap between my kids– almost four and a half years– makes it rough for the four of us to have family fun, since they are at such different ages and stages. Honestly, my husband and I sort of dread being left alone with both of our children at the same time.
So, painting. We all love that, right?
I thought we could all chose a house “rule” and paint a canvas illustrating the rule. Mine was “Be Kind.” Jack’s was “Mind Your Own Beeswax.” Emily’s was “Cooperate.” And the children decided their father’s rule would be “Don’t Forget to Smile,” since that is what they say to each other every day before he leaves for work.
Sounds idyllic, right? I pictured us all painting peacefully on the porch while the summer breeze blew gently through our hair.
We made it through the craft store to get the supplies with no drama, and got back into the car in one piece, planning how we would paint our canvasses.
The drive home was when it started. The bickering. The sniping. The blaming. The hateful, spiteful, angry back and forth between them. The he said-she said that escalates until one is saying “shut up!”, the other is calling out “idiot!” and I am questioning what grand error in judgement on my part led to motherhood.
I pulled over and came to a screeching halt on the side of the highway, sliding a little in the sand in the breakdown lane.
“If I hear one more word from either of you,” I shouted into the back seat. My heart pounded. “So help me, if I hear one more word, you will both go to your rooms for the rest of the day and then I will sign you both up for summer camp on your Mama-days so that I won’t have to listen to you fight!”
I’ve heard that siblings fight. I’ve heard it’s normal. But it really alarms and upsets me. I just want them to get along. I want everyone to be happy. Being kind is one of the most important things I can think of, and I am desperate to impart that to my little folk.
But if I am being honest, here, being kind is really fucking tough when I am feeling scalded under the collar and can no longer ignore their nasty banter. There has GOT TO BE a better way to teach my children kindness, aside from hollering at them to BE KIND!
I spent the rest of the day pondering this, in between making lunch, playing Stratego with Jack while Em napped, a pool date with the neighbors, bathing the kids, and making dinner.
i find that, much like the winter holidays, there is a cultural fantasy that summer is the most wonderful time of the year, and if you are not basking in the sun, sipping lemonade in harmony with your golden bodied brood, there is something wrong with you.
In reality, it can be really stressful to have everyone home in the same space, getting in one another’s faces, and playing cruise-ship activity director to children who may be bored within the first 20 minutes of the day. For someone with anxiety or depression, this stress can feel exponential, especially if you feel you need to be out and about in public with kids who are going in different directions.
Having the added pressure of feeling like it should be all happy-fun-pleasure-exciting-smiley-good-times just adds to the stress, in my opinion.
Shortly before dinner, I told the kids, “I have a special announcement to make at dinner tonight.” They both came to the table eagerly and on time.
My announcement was that I had concocted a game for them to play. They would have to act as a team and earn points together for being polite, sweet, and helpful with one another. Every time I caught them in the act of being nice, they would earn a point. When they get to 50 points, I will take them on a special excursion to Chuck E Cheese, or the movies, or give them a decorate your own cupcake party.
They took the bait.
Without any hesitation, Jack started speaking tenderly to his little sister, and Emily lapped it up like a kitten in the milk of human kindness. I finished my dinner and did the dishes in peace, listening to my beautiful children converse and compromise with one another on what they would share for dessert, and which show they would watch before Jack went to karate.
They earned eight points in under an hour!
Maybe you think this is bribery, but I prefer to think of it as positive reinforcement. It is a gentle nudge to get them on track, working together in harmony towards a common goal. It helps them to learn that being kind feels good. It also gets them into a good habit, and hopefully at some point it will become second nature and they will not need the reinforcement.
So, this is what I am trying to keep my cool this summer and be able to actually enjoy the time I spend with my cherubs. I will let you know how it goes.
What do you do with your children when you are all home during the summer? Have you found any wonderful techniques for helping your children work together and get along?