Sunday, December 29, 2013

Parenting Book Review - Siblings Without Rivalry

Powell's Books · Barnes & Noble
Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish ©2012

The subtitle to this book reads: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too

Sound nice, doesn't it?

Currently in our home...

I finished this book over a month ago and have had the worst time writing this review. Although I've had some success, which has improved my relationship with the girls, Berzo (2) and Boots (6) fight constantly, usually ending in hurt feelings. Actually, as I type, their relationship is in the worst shape it's ever been. In the shadow of this continual conflict, it's been a struggle to write a deserving review.

Berzo's feelings are easily hurt, and Boots is easily excitable—about everything—so they clash—a lot. Boots recovers quickly, and wants to try again, whereas Berzo takes her hurts to heart, and wants nothing to do with Boots afterward, even if Boots extends a peace offering. I use everything I've learned about conflict resolution from this and other books I've read over the years to help them work through conflicts in a positive way, and sometimes it even works, but in total things only continue to get worse. However, I remind myself that, at six and two, they have a lot of maturing to do, and we have a lot of time to work on these problems.

Deep Sea Diving?

I've come to realize that parenting is a lot like deep sea diving. In the murky depths there are wonders to behold, also trenches, hot vents and beautiful little floating luminescent orbs that lead you into a mouthful of teeth. When one attempts deep sea diving, it is good to have training, good gear and knowledge of what lies below.

Previously in our home...

The book's introduction begins:

“I secretly believed that sibling rivalry was something that happened to other people's children.”

“Somewhere in my brain lay the smug thought that I could outsmart the green-eyed monster by never doing any of the obvious things that all the other parents did to make their kids jealous of each other. I'd never compare, never take sides, never play favorites… ...what would they have to fight about?”

“Whatever it was they found it.”

Did the authors pluck these thoughts from your head too?

Feeling confident my girls would be best friends through the power of my caring parenting style, my metaphorical toes were on the edge of the boat ready to dive into the Pacific Ocean—in my street clothes. I was wearing boots too—the heavy kind.

What? Why’s everybody looking at me?

Splash. Ooh, the water is chilly.

The friction between them started when Berzo became mobile and began invading Boot's space and toys. It was too much to handle for a kid that is exceptionally easy to frustrate. Then, because Boots was the one melting down, she was the one we'd talk to, making it seem to her that she was in trouble. When we were really addressing the kid that was having trouble. I'd try to teach her how to navigate the situation, but what she really wanted is to unleash all that frustration on Berzo.

Soon we're all frustrated, and Boots would start hurling questions at us like, “Who do you love more?” and make accusations like, “That's not fair!”, “You love Berzo more!” then finally, “I hate Berzo! I wish she would go away!”

I had no idea how to handle these ferocious emotions. I often reacted with anger, thinking: I have put so much of my life into this spoiled kid, that having those statements hurled at me was too much. I didn't recognize it for the plea that it was.

Glug, glug - It’s so cold—I’m too heavy—back to the boat!

Luckily there's lots of on-the-job training, I'm a strong swimmer, and there are books like this one out there to offer guidance.

Hey, these are cool...  What did you call them again?  Flippers? They'll work better than my wellies, you say?

It really is that obvious—afterwards. No one is born with the skills for deep sea diving, nor are we born with the skills for parenting our children. Skills are learned, just like eating with a spoon, programming in c#, and deep sea diving. Implementing these skills and convincing your kids to go along… that's a neat trick...

How This Book Works

Siblings Without Rivalry follows a set of parents in group sessions with the instructor/authors. At first, I thought it was a lazy way to write a book; after a short introduction, the narrative reads like a dictation of parenting group sessions. It's not, of course, it's a thoughtful distillation of their experiences teaching sibling relationship sessions to many groups of parents. As I read, I found the parents' stories and conversations moving. The parents asked nearly every question that popped into my head, which was accompanied by a satisfying response. It was also comforting to read accounts of other parents making the same mistakes I have, and being just as clueless as I am about what to do.

The following is the outline and an example of the type of advice in that chapter.
  1. Brothers and Sisters Past and Present
    1. This chapter asks parents to record sibling conflicts, and sets expectations for what you can achieve as a parent.
    2. Example: In response to one woman's statement about wanting her kids to be friends, the author replies with her own story, “‘Instead of worrying about the boys becoming friends,’ I explained, ‘I began to think about how to equip them with the attitudes and skills they'd need for all their caring relationships.’” Brilliant. 

  2. Not Till the Bad Feelings Come Out
    1. Listening to your child complain about the troll that is their sibling, and acknowledging their feelings, is a very healing process.
    2. “Insisting on good feelings between siblings led to bad feelings. Acknowledging bad feeling between siblings led to good feelings.”
    3. Other emotional skills are important such as, naming feelings, and reflecting back to the child what they are feeling so they know you understand, for example, “You seem to be feeling angry that Berzo took your stick horse without asking.” 

  3. Perils of Comparisons
    1. Even if you don't actively compare your kids to one another, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” The water is murky, for example praising one child within earshot of the other can feel like a put down to the other child.
    2. Another insightful example: when a mother praised one of her child's improvement in math, the other gloated about her even better grade. The mother could have responded by saying, “There's no report card contest going on here… …I want to sit down with each of you individually to…” Then follow through giving each child your full attention and focusing your discuss on that child’s individual progress.

  4. Equal is Less
    1. Personally, I have railed against trying to be fair, and right from the start didn't tolerate, “She has more!” and “I want one too!!” However, just because I didn't tolerate it, didn't stop either child from feeling slighted if I didn't provide duplicates of everything. Now I have some new tools for working with this.  I have added, “Everybody gets what she needs. I'm not worried about what anybody else has, if you need more, you can have more,” to my parenting mantras. Or I might say, “Eat what you have first, then if you need more there is plenty here for whomever needs it.” I still don't count and measure, and the girls are more relaxed knowing their needs will be met.
    2. This chapter was also important for answering the, “You love Berzo more!” accusation. Instead of angry rebuttals, I now reply by telling Boots all the things I love about her, and how much she means to me. I don't mention Berzo at all. She glows. She hasn't said that since I read this book.

  5. Siblings in Roles
    1. How often has, “This is Boots, my little artist, and this is my monkey climber girl, Berzo” rolled off my tongue? It's so easy to cast kids in roles. I always thought I was praising a strength, but in reality, I'm limiting my kids' potential. By labeling Boots “The Artist”, she thinks that art is the only thing she's good at and resists branching out. Also, it could also limit Berzo's interest in art. Or worse, what if by some freak of talent, Berzo becomes a better artist than Boots? Then Berzo will have taken Boots' identity as “The Artist”. I've re-trained myself to introduce them as my daughter, Boots, and my daughter, Berzo. That's it. They get to decide who, and what they are. I also have to guard against other people labeling them; I try to always say, “Yep, she likes to climb, but can do so many other amazing things too, like, color, make funny faces, tell a funny joke… She told me this one the other day… 

    2. Out of their earshot, I love to compare and contrast my kids' abilities and personalities. It helps me get a handle on them as individuals.

  6. When Kids Fight
    1. The first piece of advice is to do nothing. Weird, but what a relief!  If it escalates, in my house it usually does, then the best thing to do is describe what you see without passing any kind of judgement. Kids are notoriously self centered, making it difficult to understand a sibling's intentions or point of view. Add to that the heat of conflict… Kaboom! 
    2. A parent can come into a dispute, hear and reflect each side in a way that both kids can understand, and them let them work out a solution. 
    3. Example:
    4. Me: “Wow you guys sound upset.” 
    5. Boots: “Berzo has my favorite necklace, and she's going to break it!”
    6. Me: “You're worried that Berzo will break your necklace.  It is really pretty, Berzo must really like it.”
    7. Boots: *calmer* “Yeah, but it's mine. And she's going to break it.”
    8. Berzo: “No, it's actually MINE!” (It is not, of course, but Boots has programmed this one into her stock phrases cache.)
    9. Me: “Berzo, that necklace belongs to Boots. She's worried that it might get broken.”
    10. Berzo: “I want to wear it!” 
    11. Me: “Boots, what can we do here?”
    12. Boots: “That one is my favorite, but she can wear this other one.”
    13. Berzo: “Thank you, sis-ter.” 
    14. This actually happened. REALLY.
    15. When I come in and describe what I see, show respect for Boots' property rights, she might unlock her position and shift into finding a solution that Berzo will be happy with too. Berzo is a bit little to understand the nuances of what went on, but I also try to coach her by giving her things to say and ways of asking that doesn't trigger Boots' volatile temperament. It is no small feat, and takes a lot of self-control on my part, because something is usually cooking on the stove, or the phone is ringing, but as I'm teaching them, I'm also learning how to focus and respectfully interact with them. 

  7. Making Peace With the Past
    1. One woman spoke of how she was continually compared to her sister in an unfavorable light, and how it still affected her to this day. Through these sessions, she began to realize that these comparisons probably caused some suffering for her sister too, and she decided to call her.
    2. “Then she told me how sorry she was for the pain she must have caused me, and how much it meant to her that I had called, and that if I hadn't, we might have gone to our graves without ever knowing each other. Then I started to cry.”
I endeavor not only to avoid this sort of mistake in raising my girls, I also want them to know what potential they have in each other for a lifelong companion. No one will understand or know the essence of you like a sibling. No one else will witness the trials and triumphs of your formative years from a first hand perspective, one that can actually enhance your understanding of those times. Even your future spouse or children won't be able to know you in that level of unspoken understanding. It's why I psshaaw, whenever Charley tells me how lucky he got to have me… All the people I grew up with know that he is my good luck.

There's nothing I can do to make Berzo and Boots become friends, nor would I try, but I can avoid deepening the rift between them, and I can give them the building materials they need to bridge the gap between them when they are ready.

Although I fight with my wet suit to get it on, and get kinda weirded out breathing through hoses, I'm much better equipped than I was before reading this book and much more cognizant of the dangers.

Most importantly, I have hope.

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