I was leaning against the house, worn out from my efforts to “become ambidextrous” by running circles in the driveway while dribbling a basketball with my left hand. Two stories up, Noah (five-years-old) saw his window of opportunity. So he cranked it open and let loose.
As he gleefully pulled up his pants, I ran from door to door, only to discover that he had already locked each. This was a premeditated attack. I was pissed, so to speak—so hot with rage that urine was evaporating from my clothing.
To be fair, Noah almost certainly had a reason for wanting to pee on me, but neither of us can remember what it was. In fact, aside from his impressive aim and foresight, that’s the real kicker of this story: It wasn’t that unusual. It was theatrically special, to be sure, but thematically speaking, it was hardly one-of-a-kind. Noah and I spent much of our respective childhoods engaged in nearly constant combat.
I suspect that many of the factors contributing to our discontent would be familiar to siblings of other families. As adults, we agree (look at that!) that the following played the largest roles:
- We were close enough (four years) in age to be competitive with each other—in conflict, not just play—but not close enough in age to be easy friends. As the oldest, our sister Rachel was the natural peacemaker and moral arbiter.
- We both frequently assumed the other was out to get us, and we were both frequently right. These facts tended to perpetuate each other so that once bickering became our default mode of interaction, it was difficult to break the cycle.
Our relationship was quite a challenge to our poor, beleaguered parents. My mother would frequently tell me that things would get better as we got older. She and her own brother used to bicker all the time when they were little, she’d say, but now they’re best friends. So, maybe, I thought.
Most of the time, our parents were forced into the role of referees. When two of your offspring are at each other’s throats, there isn’t really another option. Their goal, I’m sure, was to be neutral, but here’s the problem with that: A referee can never make a neutral call. Any intervention will be or will be perceived to be in favor of one child or the other. Even if both children are reprimanded and disciplined, someone will maintain that justice mandated a harsher penalty for someone else.
For this reason, the conversations I had with my parents outside of the moments of immediate conflict mediation were the most helpful in learning how to have a better relationship with my brother. These conversations achieved two objectives:
They helped me view my relationship with Noah less as a battlefield and more as an opportunity to grow.
My natural tendency was to view any interaction I had with Noah, especially those in which he was driving me crazy, as conflict—ergo, as a personal assault. The trick for my parents, I think, was to avoid disputing my claims that he was being annoying and focus on helping me focus on myself. They would say something like, “Yes, we see he’s being obnoxious. We’ll deal with that. You focus on not letting him get to you.” For me, this allowed the high road to actually feel like the high road, and not like retreat.
I should emphasize that hearing my parents say that they would deal with Noah’s problematic behavior, and trusting that they would keep their word, was absolutely critical. Like a lot of kids, I had very strong opinions about what was just and unjust. When I felt wronged, I wanted to know that someone would address the cause.
My parents helped me remember that my little brother was just a kid: a little boy who was, developmentally speaking, not actually my equal.
I needed a lot of reminding that Noah was not my equal in age or maturity, and therefore hardly a worthwhile adversary. Aside from occasional spurts of infuriating but impressive creativity (peeing on me, pretending that he had eaten my hamster, hiding my life savings in a shoe for six years, etc.), most of what he did could be classified as classic little brother impishness.
The problem, of course, was that I too was “just a kid,” so kid-like annoyingness was perfectly capable of getting under my skin—unless I focused really hard on being less of a kid than he was.
So, my parents explained, the secret was to remember to view him as “just a little boy,” four years my junior. The more I thought about that, especially in moments when I wasn’t already mad enough to spit, the more likely I was to remember to focus on monitoring my reactiveness when he ticked me off.
So did it work?
In some areas of life, I’m pretty sure that I was less challenging than most daughters. I’ve always been great about eating my fruits and vegetables, for instance, and I became keen on making my bed at a very young age.
But as for my relationship with my brother, I am 99% certain that I made nothing easy for my parents. But, Noah and I ended up okay. When we’re together (not all that often, as we live in different states now), we enjoy each other, and we spend a minimal amount of time bickering. He knows I love him and am proud of him. He also knows I wish I had been less hard on him growing up.
But I want to be honest here. I joke about our childhood conflicts because it’s my tendency to joke about most things, and because, thanks to Noah, many of these conflicts have quite a bit comedic potential. But I hope that my joking does not disguise that I do sincerely wish things had been different between us.
I say this not to be sentimental, but because I want to convey my belief that while things do often get better once combative siblings have grown up, I hope most siblings don’t give up on the time they spend growing up.
From personal experience, I know that takes a lot of parental effort. It requires parents to not only be the referee, but the coach and cheerleader of both teams. As a once tyrannical older sister, now softened in my old age, I hope I’ve offered some encouragement.