Rachel, 4, was recently playing quietly alone upstairs in the room she shares with her big sister. My husband and I were downstairs with Mary Elizabeth, 2. Madeline was over at a friend’s house.
After I’d read a few books to Mary Elizabeth, she asked if she could go see Rae.
“Of course,” I said.
“Fight?” she asked.
“I hope not,” I said.
The two of them have been having difficulties getting along lately and to children their age, “conflict resolution” often amounts to yanking toys away, screeching, and crying.
I was hoping for a more peaceful scenario at this given moment.
I heard Mary Elizabeth climb the staircase. Clop, clop, clop. Then immediately came her crying that quickly escalated to her “I’m-really-hurt-help-me!” howling.
My husband and I both ran up to the room. “Rachel pushed me!” Mary Elizabeth cried. My husband and I were quick to admonish Rae for not being nicer to her sister who was now coiled around my legs like a thick vine of kudzu.
It hasn’t only been Mary E. that Rae’s had difficulty playing with lately; we’ve been having issues with her lashing out at each of her sisters when they try to play along with her.
Dave and I have both talked about how it boggles our mind that she’s so quick to push her sisters away, especially since Madeline has always been really good about letting her little sisters enter her inner circle of play. Now no one’s perfect, and Madeline can be a bit of a control freak (I have no idea where she gets that from). I joke with people that she has established an Imaginary Play Congress where she makes all the laws and is sure to let you know if you’re not following them. But she’s always shared well and hasn’t ever been aggressive toward her sisters. (She plays rough sometimes, though, simply because she’s an active, physical child, but if someone gets hurt, it’s never because she purposefully hit or push. It’s probably because she leapt at them out of joy and inadvertently squashed them or was pretending she was a fierce lion stalking an injured wildebeest; that’s how Mary Elizabeth broke her leg, in fact. She tripped while under pursuit and twisted her little leg funny.)
I always saw Madeline’s welcoming nature to her sisters as a virtue, and she certainly does deserve kudos for being nurturing toward the little ones. However, my husband and I both experienced a parental epiphany with Rachel on this day.
We both told her, gently but firmly, that she needed to learn to play better with her younger sister. Our lecture wasn’t long, but its message was clear: You’re expected to always welcome your sisters when they want to play with you.
Rae burst into tears. “I have to see everybody’s faces all the time,” she sobbed. “I never get to just play alone.”
I have to see everybody’s faces all the time. I never get to just play alone. So says my sensitive 4-year-old.
With these well-spoken words from the mouth of sweet Rae, a maternal light bulb switched on, illuminating why one child is happy to accommodate sister playmates and why the other sometimes ends up refusing to share or shoving people away.
Togetherness is a gift to Madeline. It satisfies her hunger for interaction and activity. To Rae, it sometimes feels like a burden.
As a mom, I usually saw Madeline’s behavior to invite others to play with her as good and even highly virtuous while Rae’s reluctance to share – not just toys but her space and energy – with her sisters as a defect. She needed to be more generous and kind toward her sisters.
Yet, I was missing the big picture.
I won’t ever condone Rae acting out physically or being mean to her sisters (people aren’t for hurting!), but her simple words told me, that as an introvert, she needs space and alone time like others need air to breathe.
Madeline, on the other hand, is as extroverted as a person can be. She thrives when she’s with others. She loves to play with her sisters and friends and to keep busy. Even if a younger sister might not know how to play by her rules, she would never refuse someone who wants to be near to her. The more, the merrier.
Just as I recognize Madeline’s need to be active and spend plenty of time with others but also have had to teach her the value of unwinding and having quiet time to draw and dream and dawdle, it’s my responsibility to gently guide Rachel in having positive play interactions and to use words – instead of snatching a toy out of her younger sister’s arms, screaming at her, or pushing her away – to express herself in social situations.
But it’s also my responsibility to give her the alone time she needs. She’s not trying to be mean or anti-social when she quietly slips away and begins chattering to herself and her menagerie of animal figures. She’s refreshing her soul. She’s taking a breather so that she can cope with all those “faces she has to see all the time” and all the chaos and noise living in a household with several children brings.
When it comes to caring for my cubs, I want to do my best to raise caring, kind children. Yet, it’s so easy to get caught up in examining the behavior I don’t like instead of paying closer attention to the unique bend of the child and the unmet, subterranean needs that might rise up in unexpected, negative, or confusing ways.
Madeline scales furniture or literally climbs walls like an agile primate when she’s antsy. What she needs is more activity, more physical play. Rae pushes a little sister away during playtime. It’s not because she hates her sister or is destined to grow up to be a stingy, uncaring soul, but because she desperately needs alone time and a corner of calmness every single day.
To each her own.
This is one of the most challenging parts of being a parent: To crack the cipher of each child’s individual personality, what she needs, how she reacts when her needs are unmet, and then to adapt and respond accordingly.
And just when I’ve got the children in my midst figured out, another tenderly budding new life is entrusted to me*, and I’m once again faced with the humbling, incredible task of nurturing her to grow according to her natural bent so that she will be able to blossom, revealing her own unique beauty.
*Soon, very soon, says the midwife, the baby will be in my arms, but I have been hearing “any day now” for almost two months now!
I’ve discovered a new blog I absolutely love called Aha! Parenting. A few weeks ago there was a post (“The Secret of Parenting”) that spoke to the situation I described above. Dr. Laura Markham, the blog’s author, writes about how connection is 90 percent of parenting and shares tips on how to be connected to your child (and, no, she’s not talking about only embracing parenting practices like child-led weaning or co-sleeping). She writes about the importance of respecting our children. That’s what I was missing when I immediately punished Rae for not being kind to her sister. I was only seeing her misbehavior instead of looking deeper into why she was misbehaving in the first place. I wasn’t respecting her own needs or her unique temperament. I was attempting to change and control her instead of working to treat the undesirable “symptoms” she was exhibiting.
Dr. Markham writes,
“[Respect] means seeing our child as a full human being from his or her first moment on earth, rather than a lesser being to be fixed, changed, or controlled. Most ‘attitude’ in children is a symptom of their feeling disrespected and disconnected.”
The next time Rae is mean to one of her sisters, I’ll still remind her that we don’t hurt people when we’re angry, frustrated, or feeling suffocated, but then I’ll also give her some space and respect her need to have some time to play alone.
I also highly recommend Dr. Markham’s 10 Steps to Unconditional Love series.