Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to sibling interactions. The sibling squabbling between my four- and two-year-olds ramped up as fall got underway (reflected in my two posts on sharing, here and here), and I did a bit of management work here and there as situations arose. By Thanksgiving though, the overall bickering level had definitely worsened. Some days the two played great together; other days they were continually at each other and I felt like all I did was run interference.
A big part of the problem, I see now, was that I lacked a War on Unkindess mentality. To a certain degree I had internalized the societal mindset that sibling bickering is just part of normal family life to be accepted. I hadn’t fully grasped that a) it’s possible for young children to treat each other in primarily kind ways, b) parents should expect this to happen and consistently enforce it , and c) moms intent on raising their kids in godliness need to embrace relational kindness as a huge training area.
What changed things for me, as described in my habits post, was that intermittent meanness (which I could write off as ‘normal’) started to solidify through the formation of habit. It seemed to happen like this: my son would do something mean to his sister – grab her toy or knock down her tower. Being older and more adept, this was easy for him to do. She would respond in protest and anger. He found took pleasure in her angry response and realized the power that he had to irritate her. This pleasure began to take root in his heart, and he began to intentionally provoke her to elicit her indignant response. The two kids were never far from me – often they’d be playing in the adjacent family room, sometimes even within sight – but it started happening more frequently. Hearing the scuffle, I’d turn to see him smiling over her as she cried. I’d address his misbehavior, discipline him, talk to him, ensure that he understood his sin and asked his sister for forgiveness… But talk was cheap, and nothing changed. At its peak it got so that every time I left the room for 60 seconds he’d do something mean. He kept provoking her intentionally, she kept lashing back, and suddenly there was a root of meanness between them – one I had allowed.
I knew something had to change. The oldest child sets the tone for the family, and an oldest child who’s mean-spirited can sow meanness like a cancer among all the kids. (Sure, siblings still love each other in scenarios like this, but an undercurrent of meanness and selfishness runs through the home, even in the middle of Christian families.) My daughter was already learning about intentional meanness from my son. I had to immediately reel it in, develop a zero tolerance policy for meanness, and begin actively replacing it with kindness between my children.
Reflecting on it, I realized that familial kindness is the “second frontier” in child training. The first frontier is children’s acceptance of godly authority – willing obedience. This has probably been the biggest and most consistent focus of our child training in the year since we began really working toward godliness in childrearing. But the second frontier is how family members treat each other – whether they are kind and thoughtful, or mean and self-focused.
When one initially embarks on training in obedience, it seems impossible that a child will actually obey a parent willingly on a regular basis. I believed in theory it could happen when we began, but I couldn’t envision defiance and wilfulness being replaced by submission and obedience. Through training, consistency, prayer, and high expectations, though- we did make it to respect for parental authority (and resulting familial harmony). And I think that the same exact thing may be true in the realm of kindness. My kids’ natural bent is to think of themselves first, act selfish, and be mean to each other a decent among of the time. I saw this as normal preschooler behavior and had low expectations for their interactions, even as I corrected them. This went on for months before God stepped in.
Because let’s ask: Is it possible for children to be trained to speak and behave kindly toward each other? Is is possible for them to consider their siblings before themselves? Is it possible for the tone and tenor of a household to be one of predominant kindness and tenderheartedness, with only occassional meanness? I say yes on all counts. But the battle to get there won’t be easily won. We have a household of sinful natures (including my own) to overcome as we work together in Christ toward selflessness and kindness.
The first thing that had to change, I realized, was how I watched my children. I’d given them too long a leash; I had trusted them too much. They weren’t ready yet to be staked that far away from me… They were still in the earliest stages of kindness training. I couldn’t afford to continue arriving just after the fact and allowing my son the satisfaction his meanness toward his sister had brought him. I had to be there at every event as it unfolded to catch it, correct it, and implant kindness-oriented thinking in his mind while all was still in process. And so I did. And in the process God encourage me. Yes, keep at it. Stay watchful and alert with and for your children and you will find that you – and they – reap fruit from all that is being sown.
So that’s the plan at our house in 2010…