Cain and his brother

            Among the pearls of wisdom I wish to impart to my eldest child is the following: when you are among the smallest in your class, hyper-verbal, overly sensitive to other people’s opinion of you, and weigh only slightly more than your mother’s flip-flips, it is not particularly smart to taunt another child, particularly one who resembles a Mack Truck with hair. 

           Wait.  I don’t have to teach Zach that lesson.  His younger brother is taking care of it for me, one injury at a time.

            Zachary, you see, has a damned road map to his brother’s buttons, and he delights in nothing so much as pushing them. 

            “You can’t play with those,” he snaps, to which Benjamin replies, “I want it!”

            “You’re a baby,” he taunts, to which Benjamin replies, “I not a baby; you a baby.”

            “I had it first and I’m going to put you in jail and take away all your food and lock you up and then you’ll be dead,” he yells.  At which point Benjamin pokes Zachary in the eye with the stick for playing the triangle.  (The triangle is no longer playable in our home, due to the confiscation of said stick.)

            J frets about this, but I reassure him that it is normal.  Siblings fight, I tell him.  We have to let them work it out themselves, I sagely intone.

            Lately, however, I am starting to think maybe it is beyond acceptable in our house.  It seems we get an awful lot of surprised stares as Zachary comes into preschool with yet another black eye or lump on his head.  “How did you get that bruise?” the teacher asks.  It seems that by this point she could cut out the chit-chat and just ask, “What did your brother do to you this time?”

            (Although, in fairness to Benjamin, the first black eye was totally Zachary’s fault, as he fell off a stool while playing Go Fish and hit himself on the corner of a table.  Go Fish is now considered a contact sport in our house.)

            Zach whales on his brother plenty, don’t get me wrong.  While it is usually Zach starting it and Ben finishing it, sometimes it is the other way around.  And while Benjamin acts out of frustration, Zach has the finely tuned cruelty of an older sibling. 

            I worry because Benjamin is getting in the habit of resorting to physical violence, which does not help our efforts to keep him from shoving the other children in the preschool.  I worry because it feels like kids shouldn’t end up in tears this frequently.  And I really worry because one day, one of these kids could end up really hurt.

            God help us if I ever decide I need to start blow-drying my hair.

            So, I guess I’m asking you all: at what point is it out of hand?  When do we have to worry?  How much fighting is normal between siblings?

            In the meantime, rest assured: we never leave Lilah alone in the room with them.  And if we do, we arm her with a toy school bus.

22 responses to “Cain and his brother

  1. Cheeky Monkey

    Hmm. My girls fight in the same way. The older one knows exactly how to push the younger one’s buttons and the younger one reacts physically. This is also exactly how my older sister and I fought. She would get me so enraged, I would kick and hit her until she was near tears but still pretending to laugh at me. Oh, the travails of being the younger one! 🙂

    When things get really bad, we send the kids to their own rooms, but you don’t have that option, do you? They go screaming and crying but having their own space (it doesn’t have to be a bedroom) really does help them get control. And then they return to each other with hugs and tears of remorse. Or at least the older one does, as she’s all gooey marshmallow right beneath her mostly soft skin.

    Do you find they go in stages? Like they’ll get along great for days or weeks at a time and then Zach gets stressed about something and gets jiggy with it? That’s how it goes here. When I notice my girls are fighting all the time, I try to figure out what the underlying cause is for the instigator and work on that instead of on the symptoms of her stress. That usually seems to help the most.

  2. I think some sibling violence is unavoidable, understandable, and normal. So much of what we learn about getting along with others is beat into us by our brothers and sisters. My two love to fight over toys, and the baby has learned the useful art of “grab and run”. With the eldest we’re currently working on verbally expressing frustration in the correct channels- i.e, to the instigator first, then to an authority, rather than the more expedient schoolbus-to-the-head technique.
    You’re right that one of them could potentially get seriously hurt…but you could win the lottery tomorrow, or there could be a plane crash in your back yard. Some things we can control. Others take time, persistence, and glasses of red wine. Best of luck with your little Cain and Abel.

  3. no kids here, but my brother and I fought physically all the time when we were little – my parents basically just watched and let us figure it out for ourselves (which meant I would sit on him until he’d submit – I am older) unless we were driving THEM nuts, and then they intervened. So, I hope it’s normal – it’s how we reacted to one another, anyway.

  4. The fighting among my three goes in cycles (which we have yet to figure out completely). Sometimes the twins get along incredibly well, playing and chatting for hours with nary a cross work/look, others times they fight about everything (and I really mean EVERYTHING). I read something years ago that it was their relationship so we should step aside as much as possible so they can manage it on their own. We try to do this for the most part, but if it does get physical– we do step in. Any physical action against a sibling gets a ‘time out’ or a ‘talking to/with’ if we are able to. If disagreements turn into screaming, we will say that they need to find a different way to get their point across and ask them to express whatever sentiment again but don’t step in beyond that (and so far at six, they aren’t really into insulting each other or saying truly mean things ).

    Now brother #3 is built like your B, I suspect. He is rough & tumble & loves pulling on his older brothers. We have a harder time with the time out with him (it really doesn’t work– it just enrages him & escalates the situation). He is incredibly stubborn about ever apologizing. We try to make it known to the three guys that hitting/pushing/kicking/ biting/etc. are just not acceptable ways of expressing their anger/frustration/ jealously/whatever with their brothers so do referee the physical stuff pretty consistently.

  5. My girls fought like this for a couple of years. At some point…in the last maybe year and a half, they have kinda stopped fighting physically. Now they just scream at each other and taunt each other. Better, yes?

    I think it’s normal. My brothers fought forever. You are better left letting them do it and intervening when it gets bad, than stopping them all the time. Eventually they will work it out. Also, Zach will be better off in the long run, learning to deal with other kids, from dealing with a bratty bully baby brother. (ha, say that three times fast.) And Benjamin will eventually learn to not be a bully. He’s still little, give him time.

    They are very normal. Very.

  6. I would distinguish between realizing this is normal for them and communicating that it is normal TO them. Reassure your husband this is normal but insist to the boys that it is not. Don’t let them get that you accept this.

  7. Yikes. Good question. I remember my boys fighting but they were always pretty evenly matched so it never got too out of hand with the injuries. And my Middle Son used to be such a cheerful follower that it wasn’t much of a problem. As much as your boys may fight amongst themselves, it will kind of warm your heart when you see them lash out at someone else for hurting their sibling.

  8. I have no tolerance for physcial attacks of each other, if I so much as see someone trying to harm the other one, everyone gets time out until they cool off, its one thing to wrestle playfully in good spirits, but its another to hone ones fighting skills on ones sibbling. I had a sister who always resorted to physical “violence” when we were kids, and she would pull hair, bite, punch, push you down the stairs etc….its a wonder we were never seriously injured.

    On a side note, my mom was big on sentence writting, you know 100 times write “I will not call my sister horrible names” etc…… we used to use our dresser for a “desk” and when we were really mad boy did we ENGRAVE those sentences into that ethan allen dresser….of course I inherited the ethan allen dresser that I have yet to strip, sand and stain……but don’t think I wont be telling my kids when they are tempted to destroy their furniture, that they too might just have to live with what they destroy for a LONG LONG TIME… LOL

  9. and what i meant by engraving those sentences we would just use one sheet of paper and push really hard, knowing it would mark the wood.

  10. My sister and I fought a lot. And my mother intervened, or did her best to. She was an only child who always wanted a sister, and couldn’t bear the normal sibling squabbles. We fought in whispers so she wouldn’t hear us.

    I think as a result of the intervention we didn’t really learn how to deal with disagreements. We didn’t learn how to work it out. We are now grown women in our 30s and my mom is still acting as the go-between. I don’t think it’s a healthy way to relate.

    I wouldn’t stand by as they engage in physical violence, nor would I allow bullying. But beyond that, I think kids need to be figure it out for themselves for the most part.

  11. I really enjoyed this post. It had me grinning from ear to ear as I have two boys at home however my Eldest is 5 and my youngest is 19mths but is already showing the signs that he will not be pushed around by his older brother! So reading your post had me thinking that this could well be my future! If the toy school bus that you are arming Lilah with is the one we have, then rest assured, she’s safe!

  12. Physical fighting always makes me nervous, especially if one kid is a lot bigger or older than the other. I know words can hurt just as badly, but physically hurting each other upsets me. Monkeyboy and Little Bear are not allowed to hit or push or kick each other in anger… although they do “play fight” all the time, and probably get hurt just as much that way!

  13. I don’t allow hitting, pinching or otherwise physically hurting each other. I also don’t allow belittling. That doesn’t mean it never happens, but it’s fairly minimal. I found over the years that letting it go led to more. I also read recently some research that, contrary to conventional wisdom, letting kids work things out doesn’t help them do so as much as it teaches them that it won’t do any good to enlist parents’ help. That concerns me because I want my kids to know that I’ll help them no matter what. So I encourage them to say they’re angry without name calling or threats. I work with them on negotiating. I tell them if they can’t agree on who gets a toy I get it. Your kids are a lot younger. But if I was going to turn the clock back I would have set firmer boundaries then. My kids play well together a lot of the time. I don’t know if that has anything to do with me or if it’s just their personalities. But stopping them from hurting each other physically hasn’t put any distance between them. If anything I wish I’d been stricter starting from day one with hurting each other verbally. Now I’m playing catch-up.

  14. From this week’s NY Times, an article more or less on this very topic.

  15. I found some good insights in Sibling Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish.

  16. I don’t know if this is normal or not, but when I was four and he was two Poker brother hit me on the head with a cookie tin so hard I needed stitches in my head. I still remember it but for whatever it’s worth, the ER doctors told my mom it was normal, Poker brother and I miraculously still talk and there was no permanent damage ( I think!)

  17. Having only the one child, I don’t have experience of it. But my husband’s older sister (there was another sister inbetween them) hated my husband so much that it reached the point where my mother-in-law didn’t like to leave them alone in the same room together. She never intervened, though, and my husband felt that his sister’s antipathy scarred him for years. I figure there can’t be any harm in setting ground rules and (relentlessly – I remember those years well) encouraging people to ‘use a normal voice’, to substitute words for blows and to set oven clocks in order to be rigorously fair about sharing. Well, I expect you have the ground rules, but I wouldn’t be afraid to model your arbitration skills for your kids.

  18. bah. Boys fight. That’s what they do. Mine are supposed to follow all physical (and verbal) violence with a hug and an I’m sorry. Mostly they do.

    I think it is healthy to let them fight it out. If I intervene, the fights last all day. If I let them battle it out, the whole thing is forgotten in 2 minutes and they play nicely together the rest of the day.

    Thanks for this post, I’m still giggling over it!

  19. I think all of this is normal. We’ve been lucky in that our girls have respected the fact that we don’t tolerate violence of any kind in our home…physical or otherwise. When they act out in this way, there are consequences. It’s kept things relatively peaceful….so consequences are few. It was harder when they were small. I think it helped that the boundaries were set then and reinforcement began then, so now that we’re a few years in, they know what is expected, why it is expected, and what will happen if they choose to cross lines. They are also at the point now where we can talk about what happens to relationships when you hurt one another a few too many times….think that helps too. It’s the age…you’re really in the thick of it now ; )

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  21. It sure seems normal to me that they fight like this, but then my definition of “normal” has a lot to do with the fact that my sister and I regularly beat on eachother when we were growing up, and my children now regularly beat on eachother. We try to intervene when necessary, and give folks room to cool off and come back together to play, but it really does grate on me, too, and sometimes makes me worry. Honestly, though, I worry a lot less about the hitting than I do the cruel words, which we hear from the older girls toward eachother and sometimes they direct it at Eli as well. “I wish you’d never been born” sure hurts a lot more than a swat or pinch.

  22. Well, my brother and I fought terribly as kids. We’re about a year and a half apart. Once we got into our teens, though, we became best friends, and we’re still really close all these years later.

    You never know. Hang in there.