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Learning from Sibling Squabbles

Amaya and Leela. Image courtesy of the author
Amaya and Leela. Image courtesy of the author

Recently, our home seems to be filled with a symphony of sibling complaints: “Leela keeps bothering me!” “Amaya pinched me!” It is sometimes hard as a parent not to completely lose patience. Tensions between siblings and negotiating the accompanying roller coaster of emotions seem to be fertile ground for providing children and parents alike with a unique kind of mind training.

When I was expecting my second daughter, Leela, one of my teachers reassured me that having two children would be easier than raising an only child, adding that for some parents the attachment to their only child becomes almost blinding, while the child is also overburdened with pressure. Although not the case for all families, I think this was very relevant for me. During that time other parents also congratulated me, saying, “You wait, it’s much easier with two. Soon they’ll play together and keep each other company.”

Regarding the sense of attachment, I would have glimpses of how that applied to me even while expecting my second child. The notion of feeling the same attachment for another child was hard to imagine. Amaya had become the center of my universe, and with a second baby on the way it was hard to fathom how I would feel. I easily could see how not just an only child but also many first-born children must carry the weight of their parent’s expectations and attachments, which is not easy.

In the first few years after having a second child, it did not feel like double the experience and was certainly not easier—more like quadruple: quadruple the logistics, quadruple the joy and love, and quadruple the exhaustion! However, I had an interesting sense of release from the idea of being able to make everything perfect; it wasn’t possible, so family life was just how it was. I believe this shift was helpful for the children. And now that Leela is four and Amaya is eight I agree that having more than one child may be easier. There are many lovely times when they play together extensively and keep each other company, which gives me more space, but we have also been coming up against some rather intense sibling rivalry.

Children’s emotions seem so much more raw then those of adults. Amaya, who is usually fairly composed, can become completely exasperated with her little sister, who tends to escalate drama in search of more attention. If I am not centered I can find myself yelling from the kitchen as I hear an argument starting in the other room, or stepping in without letting them resolve their own conflicts. I have had to find some space in my own mind to figure out how I can help them resolve issues.

This morning my daughters were laughing together on the sofa in their pajamas discussing their favorite music videos. They made offerings on their shrine together, but by midmorning it had started: “Amaya hit me!” “Leela’s always getting in my way!” followed by tears. Instead of stepping in today, I sat on the floor and made them sit with me. I asked Amaya, “Do you want to tell Leela something?” And then, after listening, asked the same to Leela. To my surprise, they worked it out on their own with just a little neutral mediation.

As a parent who wishes to incorporate Buddhism into our daily lives, I try to find ways to encourage empathy. For Leela and Amaya, in relation to each other as siblings, I have found this more challenging. Once the heat of the moment has passed I try to give examples of the same behavior and ask them to think about what was correct or not. For example, if an eight-year-old friend hit his four-year-old brother for taking a toy, would that be okay? Encouraging each sibling, however disgruntled, to see the situation from the other side seems to be key.

I often see myself focused on emphasizing loving and compassionate behavior. However, Buddhism is so much more than just loving-kindness. How children can also learn the wisdom aspect of the Buddhist teachings is an ongoing question for me. In our home I see myself coming back again and again to impermanence as a gateway. Recognizing impermanence when possible, noting how a mood changes a relationship, our environment, and likes and dislikes. With the recent theme of sibling squabbles I told them stories about myself and my own sister and how the dynamics of childhood evolved into a priceless friendship.

I also try to remember to talk about perception in a very basic way, explaining how each of us may perceive the same situation differently depending on many factors and conditions, including our mood and understanding. I remind my daughters that all of us want to be happy, however we often try to find happiness in the wrong ways. I tell them that being kind to others can help us find happiness in the right way. “Everyone in the whole world should love each other!” Leela chimes in confidently. And Amaya and I both agree . . . until the next squabble.

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