Category Archives: siblings

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.


Thank you all for your kind comments on my last post.  We are home… again.  And now, may I introduce…

            About a month ago, Zachary said to me, “I have a good idea.  Let’s call the baby Lilah.  Isn’t that a pretty name?”  Given that he had initially wanted to name her “Applesauce Muffin,” I had to agree it was a lovely choice.

            I assumed there must be a child at school named Lilah, perhaps in one of the older classes.  J and I had already chosen a name, but I was happy that Zach was showing such interest and ownership in his little sister.

            I think I may have overrated ownership.  He kept returning to the name “Lilah.”  When we tried to gently explain that the baby would be named XXX, he would say, “No.  I want to call the baby Lilah.”  It got to the point that, one night after the boys were in bed, I broached the subject with my husband.

            “I actually like ‘Lilah,’” I told him.  “Maybe we should consider it.”  We talked it over, yet ultimately returned to our original choice.  The next day I went into labor.

            A friend went with me to drop the boys off at school before we went to the hospital.  The contractions were persistent, but I wasn’t even sure I was in labor.  The doctors confirmed that I was, and we moved forward with the necessary Cesarean.  Needless to say, my friend did the school pick-ups that day.

            When she arrived to get Zachary, the teachers said that he had been a bit worried about me in the morning.  My friend assured him that I was fine and the baby was going to be born.  “She’s going to be named Lilah,” he announced to his teachers.  My friend, excellent sleuth that she is, at least got to the root of the name choice.  Zach was intent upon naming our baby after his woodworking teacher.

            That afternoon, he came to the hospital to visit his baby sister.  He also got on the phone with another friend of ours.  This is what his side of the conversation sounded like: “I’m going to call her Lilah…  That’s not what her name is, but I’m not telling you her name… I want to name the baby Lilah.”  He was in a pretty pissy mood for about 24 hours, in fact, every now and then grumbling that we didn’t name the baby what he wanted to and that Lilah would be her nickname.

            I probably should not have worried he wouldn’t take an interest in his sister.

            The next morning, when his teachers asked about his new baby sister, his very first response was, “They named her XXX, but I am going to call her Lilah.”  J figured this was improvement; at least the boy was deigning to speak the name we had selected.

            Over the next day or two, he resigned himself to XXX.  His proprietary sense, however, simply grew more sophisticated, as he insisted he be allowed to walk while holding her (not gonna happen) or go in and stroke her while she slept (more likely).  He has let go of the dream, the beautiful dream, of a baby sister named after his illustrious woodworking teacher.

            I think his fierce insistence upon the rights of a big brother is admirable, and I want to honor his sense of responsibility to the little one.  And so, I offer him this weak consolation prize: since I always refer to my children by pseudonyms here on my blog, I hereby bestow upon my baby girl the blog name of Lilah.  I know it is not quite the same as putting it on the birth certificate, but it’s all I’ve got in my bag of tricks.

About brothers

You may have noticed I do not write as much about Benjamin as I do about his brother.  This is because the type of mental punishment that Zach inflicts upon us is more conducive to written expression.  Make no mistake about it, his brother is getting more and more adept at physical types of tribulation. 

I noticed the other day that, in fact, we all spend most of our time trying to avoid some sort of physical damage at the hands of our sixteen-month-old.  Whenever he gets his hands on an object – any object – we all instinctively recoil, grabbing all breakable items as we retreat.  We also tell him “no” quite a bit.  We try to reserve “no” for more serious transgressions.  Unfortunately, these are every three or four minutes with Benjamin in the house. 

“No hitting me, Benjamin.”

“No banging your brother on the head with a fire truck, Benjamin.”

“No grabbing eyeglasses and testing their flexibility, Benjamin.”

And, most importantly, “No stealing your brother’s Taggie, Benjamin.”

When Zach was a toddler, he took “no” seriously.  He never wanted to let us down.  Ben, on the other hand, thinks it is hysterical to find new and creative ways to get us to look him in the eye and admonish.  Nothing throws him into a fit of cackling faster than smacking Zach with a helicopter, stealing his Taggie, and taking off with a parent running behind him.

Something must be done.  It just is not fair for Zachary to live in terror of his baby brother.  And Zach usually does not hit back.  Why?  Because we told him not to, of course.  It is our job, then, to defend him.  The only thing that actually seems to upset Ben is to take away all toys-doubling-as-weapons and then remove him to another room, leaving him alone in the playpen to ponder the error of his ways.  This we have begun to do, and let me tell you, it is working.  Boy does that kid dislike time-out.

The biggest worry with Benjamin is that he is going to land himself in the hospital.  The other day we were in a store and he found a big box of those metal rods they use to attach merchandise to peg board.  It was several minutes before the threat even registered with me.  I am just getting way too used to all measure of potential physical harm.

Yesterday, I actually let him fall down the steps intentionally.  He was two steps from the bottom and it was clear, from the completely reckless way he was approaching the descent, that he was going to topple down those last two steps.  I could have saved him, but I wanted to let him get a little hurt.  I knew it would be just a minor bump.  Maybe if he falls down two steps more often, he’ll be less likely to try to throw himself down 13 all at once.  (Note: I do not actually encourage him to hurt himself, so don’t go getting all anxious.  I just sometimes let himself inflict his own minor injuries upon himself.  Like when he climbs on the furniture.)

Sometimes Benjamin seems intent upon even greater risk.  These are the moments we are grateful Zachary came first.  Like a few weeks ago, when I was loading the dishwasher.  Ben was across the room, but Zachary was right next to me, awaiting his big chance to close the door.  I turned away to pick up a dish, and suddenly I heard Zach shouting “NO!”  I turned quickly, only to find that Benjamin had somehow magically transported across the room, grabbed a steak knife out of the dishwasher, and was brandishing it about.  Good thing my little three-year-old alarm system was on the job.

The next day, Zach kept his brother from perishing all over again.  “Mommy,” he said, “I think Benjamin is going to choke on those stones.”  Oh, right.  Must keep one-year-old from eating pebbles. 

If Zachary were not here, I am pretty sure Benjamin would have little chance of making it to kindergarten.  He is quite lucky to have such an older brother (and, believe me, I know from difficult older siblings).  Much as Ben feels perpetually left behind by his older brother, Zachary seems invested in keeping his little brother alive.

But, it was not till last week that I saw how much Zach must love the little guy.  He was sitting in front of the television, a privilege he gets for only 20 minutes a day.  He chooses to spend his television allotment on Thomas and Friends, as any wise pre-schooler would.  When Thomas is on, he brooks no disturbance, entering a trance-like state during which I really believe he is transported to the Island of Sodor.

Benjamin, who finds television entirely too safe and passive, was in the room with me, playing a brand-new game in which he took all the plastic kids’ plates off the shelf – one by one – and scattered them about the floor.  Eventually, as he always does, he hurt himself, this time by slipping on one of the plates, falling backwards, and banging his head on the floor.  It was Three Stooges goes toddler.

As I gathered him up for a cuddle, I heard the thump of Zachary’s feet hitting the floor, then patter, patter, patter.  Zachary came bursting into the room, ran over, kissed Benjamin on the head, then spun on his heel and ran back out.  Patter, patter, patter.

No sense in missing more of Thomas and Friends than is absolutely necessary.

Together at last

Folks, I would love some comments on this topic.  Anything you have to chime in on any aspect of this post would interest me greatly.  I am thinking of writing an article on this, and I would love to gain some other perspectives.


Zachary has been having sleeping problems of late.  I’m not talking about the nightmares, which happen every now and then and send me stumbling to his room to comfort him.

Nor am I talking about the five AM trips to the toilet.  These began a few months ago because his brain is ready to nighttime train but his body and his courage are not quite there yet.  So, a year after he gave up daytime diapers, he still insists upon nighttime protection, despite the fact that he rarely wets and he wakes up when he needs to pee.  Unfortunately, that is all too often.  We have started lifting him to the potty a couple of hours after he falls asleep, in the hope that he will not then need to go again two hours before morning has officially been declared in the Rosenbaum house.  Sometimes this works, sometimes he wakes up to go again seven hours later.

This is OK.  Neither J nor I really care if he potty trains completely, other than the obvious hassle and environmental impact of unnecessary diapers.  (Those things can only be reused for so long, you know.)  We aren’t big fans of getting up to help him to the toilet, but it’s not too bad if he goes right back to sleep.

If he goes right back to sleep.

But he does not.  After four in the morning, if he wakes up, he dutifully gets back in bed, but every half hour to forty-five minutes, he re-emerges from his room.  He does not seem frightened, he is just out of his room.  He sits in the hallway at the top of the stairs, waiting for us to come out to him.  If we ignore him, he starts to whimper.  I suck at ignoring whimpering three-year-olds sitting in the dark.

We tried everything.  We tried sternness.  We tried gentleness.  We tried lights on.  We tried lights off.  We even tried reason (yes, yes, I know).

Because we are both incredibly intelligent people, it only took about three months of this before something dawned on me.  “Are you lonely in there?” I asked him.

“Yes.  I don’t like being alone in there.”  And why would he?  Benjamin gets to sleep in the room right next to ours.  Zachary is all the way down the hall.  His room may be bigger, it may be quieter, but it is lonely.

“Would you like to share a room with Benjamin?”

We did not grow up in households where the children shared rooms.  In suburban, middle-class homes in the 1980s, it was de rigueur to provide each child with his or her own room, provided one had the necessary child to bedroom ratio.  Since almost everyone we knew lived in a four or five bedroom house and had only two or three children, almost everyone we knew also had his or her own room.

“I never thought about having the boys share a room,” mused J.  He was not opposed; it just never occurred to him.  That, I suspect, has to do with the fact that we only know the family model in which we were raised – even me.  I obviously got that some things did not work right in my households of origin, but there are some ways of doing things that we never really think about when everyone we know does them.

Of course, sharing a bedroom with a sibling is actually a more common experience than not sharing one.  It is an absurd luxury to be able to afford enough space for each member of the family to have an entire room to himself.  Throughout the world, people share rooms and beds with siblings, grandparents, and cousins.  Until not that long ago (OK, a few centuries), people in Scotland voluntarily shared their homes with the livestock, under the theory that sheep are sort of like an organic heating system.

This is partly a class and geographical phenomenon, but even children of well-to-do architects bunked together in the 1960s.  Alice, you will recall, was the only person in the Brady household to have her own room.

It is not that we thought children are better off with their own room.  Emily Dickinson had her own room, and, while I will admit she penned some mighty fine poetry while holed up there for a few decades, that’s really not the life we want for our boys.  We just never thought about doing it any other way than one child/one bedroom.

Sometimes, we consciously reject the things with which we grew up.  After learning about the benefits of whole wheat bread, for example, I have a brown breadricepasta household.  However, most habits are benign, and there seems to be little purpose to seeing beyond them unless someone challenges them.  But, we get very easily closed into a box in which we do not understand the myriad options for living a life.

One Sunday, back when Melissa and I were still on speaking terms, I was up visiting her in Boston.  “I wonder why the streets are so empty,” she said.

“Church hasn’t gotten out yet,” I suggested.

“No one goes to church anymore,” she laughed.  She thought I was kidding.  I was living in North Carolina and Virginia.  Trust me – people still go to church and the roads really are emptier on Sunday until a bit before noon.

It is in raising children, more than any other aspect of our lives, that we find ourselves unconsciously adopting the norms of our childhoods unless we consciously think about changing them.  So, while we thought about the pros and cons of co-sleeping before (quickly) determining that it was not right for us, we never really thought about whether the boys would share a room when they got older.

Here in London, I have few English friends.  It would be awfully lonely if it weren’t for the French people all over the neighborhood.  French people who, like us, never thought of doing things differently until they got here.  “It is a good idea,” one mother said to me, “this bathing children after supper.”  In France, they do it before.  That’s just what they do.  Never occurred to them to try it another way; never occurred to them people might bathe their children after they finished covering themselves in cheese sauce, rather than before.

It did, however, occur to them that young children might like to share a room with one another.  This is why it finally occurred to me.  So, on Thanksgiving day, we combined two bedrooms into one.  The tiny one next to our room.

The kids are sleeping less, not more.  They spend a lot of time talking to each other, although how Zachary understands what Benjamin is telling him is beyond me.  I am hoping that this calms down, because are they ever happier this way.

Last night, J asked Zach if he likes sharing a room with his brother.  “Yes,” answered my pre-schooler.  “It is much better than the big, hairy monkey in my room.”

Well, I guess that explains why he kept running out.