Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Article I wrote a few months ago for Amsterdam Spoke, an online magazine.

O Sibling Why Art Thou?
I’ve been working on a painting the last few days, eighteen by twenty four, oil on canvas. In it, my two nephews sit on a wooden bench in a white walled building with a dark, wooden floor. One is tall and thin. The other is not—(he is pre-growth spurt, he would point out). And neither are speaking to nor looking at one another. They could be two strangers killing time on the same bare stage. But my hope is that viewers will wonder what the story is here. I want them to notice their body language—the turn of a head, the angle of a foot, the way a hand falls, the overall ease these boys have in each other’s presence—and guess the truth, that these are two brothers taking a rest from their ongoing conflict. Because if they don’t then this is nothing more than an illustration, a greeting card. Two kids on a bench. So what? The painting would lack any impact which could draw viewers in for longer than a glance without that implied relationship, and all the rivalry and (sorry boys) affection such relationships imply—the very things which compelled me to paint the image in the first place.

The source of my painting (a day trip to Philadelphia) happened during the summer while I was staying with my sister and her kids. With her husband in the middle east, and her kids totaling five altogether (from the toddler to eleven year old Sean) I let a three week visit stretch into fourteen. As a freelance artist and painter, I have freedom to work from nearly anywhere. So why not there, where I was needed? Five children, three girls and two boys, equals a multitude of sibling relationships and rivalries all at once. Add to that the two sisters taking care of them and the endless hours of summer to fill up and things can get quite interesting.

First of all, when to step in, what to say and how to say it if one does, and when to let children work things out on their own were things I continually debated with myself. It made me feel high minded to believe that children should learn to solve their own problems and to stand up for themselves. But in practice, I found that a child will eat every last egg while their siblings starve if they can get away with it. They’re children, what else did I expect?

So, for arguments over fairness of food, toy or chore distribution, I often intervened without qualm, soon shattering their image of nice Auntie Cheryl as I got better at saying things like, I don’t care whose turn it is! Get the leash and take that dog out—NOW! Alright, I did have some regrets about becoming so authoritarian as the children learned I could be every bit as scary as their mother in a bad mood was. But, if I wanted to get any artwork done or wash the dishes or hear the television all without the din of shrill angry voices bouncing back and forth between my ears, niceness was something I had to sacrifice.

Much trickier to know whether to address or to leave alone were the slights and insults slipped in (usually by an older kid to a younger one) during the normal course of conversation or play. The conflict here was not over concrete things. They were over definitions, ways of seeing oneself versus another’s, someone bigger and with a score to settle. This was wrong, I told my sister. This can cause lasting damage to their developing sense of selves! Then I reminded her how she used to tease me as a child , a torment so constant and cruel that in comparison the damage caused by our parents—one a verbally abusive alcoholic, the other someone who left us with that verbally abusive alcoholic at the tender ages of nine and twelve—was minimal. Yes, I actually said this. But that’s what kids do, she replied somewhat defensively. No matter what, no matter how hard a parent tries, no child grows up unscathed.

Still, feeling more confident in my parenting skills, as well as more familiar with the various dynamics influencing each child’s behavior, I wanted to see if I could use reason and empathy—two things our own parents never seemed to bother with—to lessen the daily conflict around here just a bit. My sister, skeptical but willing to humor me, let me try my experiment.

So I started with Sean, the oldest. I asked him, as non accusingly I could, his reasons for bickering with his brother so much. And he gave me this long explanation which boiled down to the little appreciated fact that without his efforts, Jamie’s natural laziness, among his many other negative traits, would drag Jamie and the rest of the family into disgrace and ruin because prison was a very real possibility in the future of someone like him, someone who avoided responsibility, unlike himself. What I saw as pointless and relentless nitpicking he saw as a courageous, daily quest to save and protect his family. I didn’t know how to respond to this because I was so touched and amused by his reasoning. It reminded me of how he as a little boy had locked himself in his bedroom and cried as if his heart were breaking, which it probably was, because there was a new baby in the family and now he had to share his favorite blanket with him even though he didn’t want to.

Next was Jamie. I couldn’t blame him for his fights with Sean, but I did blame him for the way he took any extra frustration out on the next in line, his six year old sister Jessica. There’s a big developmental gap between a six and a nine year old. Eleven and nine year olds are more or less evenly matched. But Jessica was no match for Jamie yet either verbally or physically. And seeing him pick on her day after day, as if intent on destroying the natural confidence all girls are born with, drove me nuts. So I would step in the moment, or soon after, he turned on her. If he claimed the way she ate her cereal was annoying, I would tell him he was wrong and then point out the chunks of cereal I would have to clean up after him. If he told her to shut up. I would tell him to shut up. If he slapped her, I would slap him. Or I would hold while Jessica got her revenge. But whether I had succeeded in lessening the amount of teasing he directed at her was hard to tell. Looking back, I’m sure I did, only because he was now directing his frustrations at me. In the same way Sean was forever trying to provoke his brother into losing his temper, Jamie was now trying to provoke me, looking for my weak spots for no other reason than the satisfaction of having caused me to lose my temper. My run ins with him were becoming so frequent that I told my sister at one point, that he was my least favourite of her children, which did nothing to improve our sisterly relations. I was fighting with a nine year old, she said.

She was right, I knew, but this made it no easier to hear. That I, reasonable, empathetic adult I thought I was, could be so provoked by a nine year old, is not an easy thing to accept. But I did have to accept that what I was doing now was not working. In my efforts to lessen the daily conflict I had merely spread it around. If I really wanted to lessen the daily conflict I had to—hard as this is to do—start with myself. I had to do what I’d been trying to get the boys to do all along—turn a deaf ear to all provocations and treat everyone in my family with open acceptance.

And so, when Jamie would say some mean and random comment, like he hated all art and saw no use for it, or he made fun of something I just said, I would respond with a smile, as if he’d given me a compliment. This, it goes without saying, took every once of will power I had, but do it I did, because I was a reasonable and empathetic adult. And, thank goodness, it did get easier over time. I even started to enjoy Jamie’s company again and to appreciate things about him I hadn’t noticed before. And when he tormented his sister (which he still did but less frequently now and usually with a look in my direction) I would address him and reassure her and leave things at that.

And still, I wondered, how could I get him to stop picking on her so much?

Perhaps this issue would not have preoccupied me so much if Jessica responded to her brother with the same cheery forgetfulness her four year old sister did. But she tended to have no response at all, as if, I feared, she was internalizing each and every insult. And seeing her, when the two kids were getting along, go out of her way to be nice to Jamie, as if trying to win him over in order to prevent any future teasing, also drove me nuts. If a boy calls a girl an idiot for no reason whatsoever, I thought, she’d better call him an idiot right back, and then refuse to have anything to do with him until he could show her more respect. She shouldn’t try to win him over, for goodness sake! What sort of precedence is this setting for her future?

My sister, to my extreme annoyance, disagreed. She took Jessica’s silence as a sign that Jamie’s teasing had no effect whatsoever. She gets her own back eventually, she reasoned. So I reminded her of a recent incident when we were buying the girls new shoes. Because we couldn’t find the right size for a pair of Disney Princess sneakers she been begging for, my sister had to tell Jessica she’d have to wait. And instead of protesting loudly, the way Angela would have, Jessica sat on the bench where she had been trying on pairs of shoes, not saying a word, as she did her best to stifle her tears. That, I told my sister, is how she responds to Jamie. Silence, in her case, does not mean she’s alright. It means she wants to please so much that she does her best not to complain.

This, to my secret satisfaction, hit my sister hard. From then on, I noticed, she had begun to correct Jamie herself whenever he picked on Jessica, making sure he apologized. Thank God, I thought. Perhaps Jamie had teased his sister so much because he’d been allowed to get away with it by the one person he once called the boss of the family, his mother. Maybe, I hoped, Jamie will be forced to express his aggression in more positive ways.

I can’t say I succeeded in my experiment. I can’t even say it was necessary in the first place. Who’s to say Jessica wouldn’t have figured out how to deal with Jamie on her own? A certain amount of conflict—a certain amount of sibling rivalry—is a good thing, like the person who eats a lot of dirt in childhood and develops a stronger immune system as a result. At the start of my stay there, all that arguing and yelling, as I said, drove me nuts. Now I’d learned to either tune most of it out or react to it less. It had become an everyday part of my life. I would miss it.

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