Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Love and Jealousy of Siblings

Lately, my two daughters have shown an overabundance of love towards me. They will fight over who gets to sit by me at a restaurant and will choose to ride with me in my car instead of with their father. My 3-year-old is frightened of going anywhere unless she knows that I'm going along. My 6-year-old wants me to play the same games and read the same stories to her as to her sister.

As much as I Iove the affection and attention, I know that their fondness is not about me. It's about oneupmanship. It's about competition. They are naturally seeking to understand how they rate with each other in the estimation of a loved one.

Don't play the game, parents. It's too easy to fall into comparisons of your children or judgments based on their skills or behavior. Be conscientious of their attempts to compete for your attention and find ways to dole it out with fairness and wisdom.

An easy way to create fairness is to require the kids to take turns. One sits by you this time, the next kid gets his turn, and so on.

Create special one-on-one time with each child. It doesn't have to be the same activity, but involves attention with just them. Take one to a coffee shop to play a board game. Take another fishing. Plan reading time with each. Encourage one-on-one interaction through family chores like inviting one along to the car wash or raking up spring leaves together. Allow the kids to take turns choosing their favorite meal for the month and let them help you prepare it.

If one parent is becoming "the favorite," encourage the kids to do things with the other parent, letting them know that it's important to spend time with both of you to learn different things and have different fun. If you're a single parent, promises of one-on-one time are more challenging, but can be remedied with the help of a trusted friend or grandparent. Even if you have an outing with one child once a month — as simple as running errands together and getting an ice cream — it builds their sense of self and their connection to you as a positive influence.

The sibling rivalry factor will be lifelong, but harmless if you avoid comparisons and acknowledge each child's unique qualities and talents.

As for the favorite parent thing, I quickly learned my place on the love meter when we had lunch with Nana the other day. I sat alone on my side of the booth.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Rescuers and Referees

There are many styles of parenting based on the life experiences and belief systems of parents.

One father wants his son to be masculine, so he puts him into aggressive sports like wrestling and talks to him about "women's work" and "men's work." When he punishes him, it's often with his own hands.

Another father wants to be his son's friend, indulging his interests and desires with toys and activities and money and giving him a long rope for experimentation. He jokes with him about the times he got "wasted" and allows him to bring friends over to party, feeling that it's safer under his own roof. After all, boys will be boys.

You may know parents like this. But between the spectrum of total control over our children's beliefs and actions and 100 percent freedom, there are many shades of gray. Consider two more parenting styles:

THE RESCUER - Also known as helicopter parents, they rush in at the slightest whimper from their child. They handle things for their child to save her from potential embarrassment, ridicule, rejection, disappointment...or any mistakes. They indulge the protective instinct that grew from caring for a helpless newborn, and still view their children as vulnerable even into adulthood. They are well-intentioned...a bit perfectionistic...and can't seem to let go. Their children learn to be helpless and to rely on them for every decision and action they make.

THE REFEREE - Tending toward an authoritarian parenting style, these parents rule the roost and there isn't room for debate. It's their playbook or the bench. They fear giving their kids too much leeway or they'll foul out of the game. Children learn to do things according to what the parents expect and become good followers of authority. But they do not gain the skills to become leaders themselves, able to weigh their options and the potential consequences.

Knowing when to let go and knowing when to protect is every parent's challenge. But just as we teach them to dress themselves and make their own beds, we must also teach them how to make good decisions on their own. Instead of rescuers and referees who believe that we are better judges for our children, we must become mediators and guide our children through problem early as possible.

From a fight over toys to a fight over going to the next party, there will be many opportunities to mediate. And like a mediator, we must work on staying emotionally neutral. We are not their friends or their enemies. We are teachers. We are guardians of their character and safety. Rules are created for safety and to navigate a world that won't be as loving or understanding.

When children understand the reasons behind the rules, the rules are easier to follow. When children feel a sense of personal power, within our guidance, they will be more open to communication that outlines the consequences of their decisions. They will feel secure, yet free to choose wisely.

Children live for today. We must help them envision the future, a future that hinges on the decisions they make each day. This includes who they hang out with, how they present themselves to the world, the music they listen to, the activities they take up, the games they play, the goals they set.

I'm not saying that a kid with purple hair is out of control. Parents need to weigh the superficial against their child's goals and character. Is the purple hair an outward expression of their creativity or an expression of a problem? The distinction is obviously important. How we respond — with anger and ultimatums or respect and guidance — is really important.

Sometimes you might feel totally lost as your children grow and change and face hardship before your eyes. But don't give up. They need you.

And when they do, be careful to find out if the situation calls for rescuing, refereeing, mediating — maybe even cheerleading.

"You're smart! You're brave! I know that you can handle it! Gooooo, parents!"