The way I remember it, the adults in the family were sitting around the kitchen table at my parents’ house, discussing adult things. We had finished dinner and had sent the kids out into the backyard to play.
The back side of the house is all windows, so I could watch the cousins play as I sat at the table. Something happened with the rubber ball. They played on the swingset. The chaise lounge became a stage for some declaration. They ran around the yard with the energy only young children can muster.
At that time, my youngest was the youngest cousin. He was three to four years old but, that year, told anyone who asked that he was eight. He was scrappy and had a mean right hook.
What I watched over the adult conversation was the older kids — cousins and siblings — taking turns riding in the red wagon around the yard and taking turns pulling the wagon. My youngest tried to take a turn in the wagon but was rejected. He came in to tell us about the injustice, ie, to tattle.
As he loudly burst through the back door, sweaty and with dirt on his face, my brother-in-law was the first adult he saw to whom he could air his complaints. “The big kids won’t let me in the wagon.”
This brother-in-law is the family diplomat. He explained to my son that he just needed to talk through it with the older kids, explain that he would like a turn, then wait patiently for such a turn.
Importantly, I see in hindsight, none of us adults got up from our chairs to intervene.
My son went back outside, walked up to the wagon game and the six older kids, and said something with his hands on his hips, pointing at the wagon and then himself.
He was rejected again. I didn’t hear what the two oldest kids said to him, but I’m sure it was patronizing (wait over there little boy). Maybe it was just factual (it’s your turn after these two get a turn).
I watched my child go back to the deck and sit on a porch chair, simmering in anger as he saw the older kids in the wagon being pulled around the yard.
After a few minutes, his head turned to the right, where a child’s broom was resting against the brown brick of the house. He looked at the broom and then back at the wagon. He looked at the broom again.
He got up from the porch chair and walked over to the broom. He picked up the broom and walked out to the yard, little plastic crocs stomping on the wooden deck and then through the green grass.
And then he started swinging. The bigger kids saw him coming and started yelling. They dodged the swinging broom and blocked his blows with their arms. They laughed as they called him names and scrambled out of the wagon.
The next scene that passed by the window was my youngest son, the youngest cousin, alone in the red wagon, being pulled by an entourage of older cousins and siblings. He looked like royalty, being carried on a palanquin or litter. He clutched the broom to his chest, in case he needed it again.
I want to clarify that violence is never the answer, obviously. But this scene taught me a lot about both birth order and the importance of sibling and childhood interactions and play.
As summer comes to an end and the heat has caused siblings and cousins and friends to be crammed into their houses for a long, unstructured summer, I’ve been getting more questions at work regarding sibling interactions and fighting.
How can I keep them from wrestling? Fighting? Saying hurtful things to each other? Why can’t they get along? Why do they have to goad each other?
At my pediatric office, we have stairs that roll out on our exam tables. I cracked up last week when an older brother couldn’t answer my questions because his little sister was discreetly and repeatedly pushing the stairs, just enough to get on his nerves. “Stop it!” he yelled, as she gave me a mischievous smile.
My own kids have said things to each other this summer that only siblings can say. “Bro your breath stinks.” “Not gonna lie, that haircut is awful.” “What even is that outfit?” They have punched each other, locked each other in closets, and wrestled until I think they’re going to bust through a wall.
Both the verbal interactions and the physical ones, though, have given them lessons about boundaries and resilience. Wrestling with or jumping on a sibling is fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Then they know not to wrestle that aggressively. Or to be more gentle with a younger child. Or that, when they fall off the bed, there’s a reason parents say not to jump on it. Kids then learn the limits of physical aggression that will tip someone into anger or pain. They learn physical boundaries and bodily consent.
Same goes for the verbal. Growing up with siblings, cousins, and friends means that the child learns what reactions occur based on their words. They learn what hurts someone’s feelings, what results in a smile, what results in a burst of anger.
So don’t sweat it too much if your kids are squabbling. Learning how to interact with each other will ideally translate into teenagers and adults who know the appropriate boundaries of physical and verbal human interactions. Think of these interactions as lessons in how to solve problems and get their turn in the red wagon of life.