Saturday, May 12, 2007

Brothers in arms

I was recently watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with my two sons in a movie theater. And somewhere in the film, two turtle brothers – Leonardo and Raphael – meet on a rooftop, rain pelting on their wet glistening skins. Leonardo is upset that Raphael is defying him. Raphael is fighting long standing abandonment from his brother. After some cinematic arguing, both pull out their weapons and fly at each other in a murderous rage. They desperately want to hurt each other. And while I chomped my smuggled Choxies in the darkness I marveled at what a terrific depiction this was of sibling rivalry.

My sons have a love-hate relationship. When they are getting along – or as they like to call it: “being brothers” – they play together for hours. Hugs are exchanged. Sharing ensues. Motorsandal reads to Youngling. Youngling plays “camp” with Motorsandal. They can’t love each other enough.

And yet, on a dime, they can turn. Dark clouds roll in. Youngling will scream, Motorsandal will reciprocate and without any apparent reason, they both hate each other. “Our brotherhood is cancelled” they’ll say. And then things get worse. They can’t stop annoying each other enough. Doors are slammed. Pushing ensues. If they are in the back of the car, they’ll fence each other with their feet!

It’s maddening for a parent because not only do you want your sons to love each other constantly, but you can’t seem to understand how seemingly trivial things can change the landscape so drastically.

“Youngling, does it really matter that his foot is one inch on your side of the car?”

“Motorsandal, why does it upset you so much that Youngling is humming?”

My emotional involvement with my children made me a terrible resolver of disputes. Instead of getting to the core of the problem and helping my sons work their feelings I kept getting frustrated that they weren’t getting along.

“Does it REALLY matter who came down the stairs first?!”

After copious practice, I’m wiser now. The first thing I do is detach myself a bit. I ask questions – what happened, what makes you angry, why are you so frustrated at your brother, what else did he do today? That last question is a critical one. Most of my sons’ issues with each other have begun well before the explosion occurs. A friend was stolen, a plea ignored, a toy was broken – these are the seeds that sprout the bitter shoots.

All my efforts are now focused on sitting the boys down and giving them equal cycles to describe the dispute. Most of the times I don’t try to resolve the dispute at all. I simply give my sons’ a hug and tell each person how I’m sorry they are in a fight with their brother. While this may seem to be a cop out – it does allow you to calm things down without picking sides. And in the final analysis, identifying the person who “started it” isn’t important in a systemic world – in fact it’s impossible.

There’s another thing I’ve found really useful. In the past - during those long car rides that you get used to in Chicago - I would switch off the CD player and lecture my sons on being good siblings, on what family meant, what unconditional love involved.

I still do some of that but mostly now I ask my sons about their rivalry. I ask them when they annoy each other the most and why. And their answers surprise me. I think it surprises them too. When they talk about it in front of one another, they often come up with the band aid themselves.

“I won’t tease you anymore”

“I won’t steal your friends again”

“Dad, can we be brothers again?”

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