A few months ago, Josh and Chloe were playing with their toys in the living room. Chloe got bored with her own toys and decided to wreak havoc on Josh’s construction project. As Chloe was about to knock over the building he was making with his blocks, Josh made one last attempt to warn her against it, “Chloe, if you knock it down, I’m going to hit you!”
“Josh,” I said abruptly in response to his statement. Josh turned quickly and stared at me with a ghostly expression because he had forgotten that I was sitting in the chair behind him and heard what he had said to his sister. “We don’t threaten to hit.”
But before he could say anything in his defense, his right arm came up and grabbed the back of his left arm as he screamed, “Oooowwwww!”
As I was talking to Josh about threatening his little sister, Chloe exacted a quick, severe and resounding pre-emptive strike of her own; she bit him! The tears welled up in his eyes as the electrical shock of having been bitten coursed painfully throughout Josh’s body. Stephanie came into the room to see what was happening as I tried to console Josh and scold Chloe at the same time. In the middle of the black and blue welt that was developing on his arm where Chloe had bit him was a trickle of blood where she had broken the skin with her teeth. Stephanie took him into the bathroom to clean out the cut while I took Chloe to the time-out chair.
When Chloe finished her punishment, we had a long talk about hitting and biting. In her mind, she had been threatened and she did not want to get hit, so she struck first. Our rules have always been pretty clear; “no hitting”, “no biting”, “no fighting” and “no violence.” Chloe knows these rules. She recites them daily, she understands them and she knows that there will be a punishment if she breaks them. But when Chloe feels like her brother has committed some kind of grave injustice against her has, she reacts.
And it has gone on like this for months and months. One minute, the two of them are playing nicely and the in the blink of an eye, a melee has broken out between the two of them. And they both have their roles in this battle of wills. Josh is the instigator. He needles her behind the scenes, teases her when no one is looking and pushes her buttons just enough so Chloe will react. Chloe is the enforcer. There are set rules, in her mind, as to what is right and wrong and when her brother crosses the line, then she will enact a swift and definitive punishment to fit the crime that has been committed.
The interesting part of this whole “instigator vs. enforcer” dynamic is that it all stops at our front door. Once they walk out the house, both of our children can understand our rules and live by them. They follow the rules when they are at the playground, in school and when they are playing with their friends. Josh stands up against “bullies” in his class while Chloe sits around the dinner table and tells us about “the bullies” in her preschool class. But when they come back home, the game starts all over again. Eerily, the “Instigator vs. Enforcer” dynamic in our home is a lot like reading the old Spy vs. Spy comic strips.
Take this past weekend for instance, Stephanie and I decided to do a little spring cleaning and throw out all of the junk that has accumulated in our garage over the winter. It was a daunting task but it was the first weekend of spring, so it needed to be done.
While I was moving a few boxes and Stephanie was throwing out some old arts and crafts stuff, Chloe came into the garage and said matter-of-factly to me, “Dad, Josh kicked my doll and didn’t say sorry, so I kicked him.”
“What happened?” I asked as I put the boxes down and turned to talk to her.
“Josh was mean to my doll, so I kicked him.”
“Why did you kick him?”
“Because he hurt my doll,” she said with a puffed out lower lip.
“But your doll isn’t real, she didn’t get hurt. Your brother is a person, we don’t hit people.”
“My doll is real.”
“Chloe, your doll is plastic, you’re brother is real. Is Josh okay?”
I was dumfounded at the unsolicited confession that she was giving to me, “Well if he is okay and not telling on you, then why are you telling me this?”
“I thought you should know.”
“You thought I should know?”
“Right,” I said. “Where’s your brother now?”
“Inside,” she said as she opened the door and went into the finished basement with a twinkle in her eye. “Josh, Dad wants to talk to you.”
I followed Chloe inside and spoke to both children about what had transpired. The abridged version is simple: Josh was lying on the floor playing his Nintendo DS and when he moved his feet, he accidentally knocked over Chloe’s doll. Chloe yelled at him, stood up, kicked him and then she told on herself. I have to admit that I was amazed that Josh didn’t tell on his sister when she kicked him. He told me that it didn’t hurt and he didn’t want her to get into trouble, so he just ignored her.
When I was done sorting out the facts, I had the millionth conversation with Chloe about hitting and had her apologize to Josh for kicking him. The real drama started when I told her to sit in time out for three minutes. I think she thought Josh was going to get into trouble for knocking over her doll and she would be fine, even though she kicked him.
As I put her in the time-out chair, she screamed, she cried, she tried to justify again that Josh had hurt her doll and that he “deserved it,” but her pleas fell on deaf ears. I did however tell her that I was proud of her for telling the truth and only had her sit for two minutes instead of three; my own version of “time off for good behavior.”
But it has left me to question my own ability to convey the message that “hitting is wrong!” As I had lunch yesterday with a friend of mine, I told her about the little skirmishes that Chloe and Josh have with one another. I asked her for some sage advice about how to reframe the message to both of the kids so that it will diminish the fights between them.
She laughed at me and said, “Nothing. Be firm. There is nothing else you can do.”
“That’s a defeatist attitude.”
“No it isn’t, it’s called a case of sibling rivalry! For the next ten or so years, Josh and Chloe will fight like cats and dogs but after they both graduate from college, they will become the best of friends.”
And my friend was right. My siblings and I fought constantly as kids and now we are the best of friends. We actually joke about some of the shenanigans we pulled and the trouble we got into, much to the chagrin of our parents, but it is a right of passage. It just turns out that Josh and Chloe are the ones who are navigating the waters of siblinghood while Stephanie and I have to sit back and get premature gray hair while we adjudicate their scuffles.
“I just wonder what will happen first; will your kids become friends or will you finally break down and curse them with the phrase ‘I hope you have kids just like you!’ just like our parent did to us,” she said to me.
“Oh my God, you’re right. This is all my parents fault!”
At that she laughed again and said, “Well, look on the bright side; at least your parents got their wish.”