Childcare Challenges

The problem of childcare has been getting renewed attention lately.  Most parents have long been aware that finding good, affordable childcare presents a major challenge for those working, or wanting to work outside the home.  Both the cost and quality of available childcare are major obstacles difficult to overcome.

For many years discussion has centered on the desirability of government sponsored, universal childcare either in the form of actual childcare centers, or financial support to parents to cover the cost of privately arranged childcare.  The United States has the lowest level of spending on childcare among industrialized countries.  This is also true of policies that provide support to working parents in other ways, such as paid maternity/paternity leaves and similar measures.

Helping parents pay for that care would be expensive for society as it is for parents themselves.  To justify such government expenditure, arguments are presented in financial terms, with research showing the economic payoff not just for families but for society as a whole.  Studies are cited demonstrating that calculating the cost to society of unemployment, crime and poor health resulting from inadequate early care, justifies the government investment in good childcare.   

The objection to publicly supported childcare is based on factors other than the financial issue.  Economics are at times used to cloud underlying cultural/social attitudes and biases.  At root is the belief that mothers should stay at home to care for their children.  The controversy over federally funded day care is very much tied to resistance to the changed role of women and older family structure in which men were the breadwinners and women the homemakers.

Nothing has been more of a handicap to women in their struggle for both economic and social equality than the problem of finding good, or even adequate care for their children.  Many women have been forced out of the workplace because the cost of care equals or surpasses what they are earning.  Others, working out of financial need must resort to makeshift or less desirable kinds of care.

The two words that invariably go together in discussions about childcare are cost and quality – quality often a main determinant of cost.  Yet, the question of what constitutes high quality is subject to its own debate.  Recently, I interacted with a nurse in a high level, full-time hospital job and learned that she had two children ages 5 and 13 months.  Asked about her childcare arrangements she explained that both children had been in daycare since infancy.

She related that her baby girl is thriving at the center but that it had not been as positive for her 5-year-old son.  Speculating about the reasons for this she said she thought it was due to caregivers who were not as warm and accepting as those caring for her daughter.  Knowing about my blog, goodenoughmothering, she said sadly that she worries about being good enough herself.

This raises the question of the dilemma mothers face in determining whether other caregivers – or they themselves – are good enough.  Part of the problem is not being sure what is good enough, but the other part is wanting to be better than good enough – whatever that might be.  What standard should we set for caregivers – to do what we would do as parents or to be even better than we think we are?

Both personality and values play a major role in the way we raise our children – even when we may think we are following the latest research or child-rearing guidelines.  In trying to define quality care as given by others, basic attributes such as responsibility, dependability, and necessary physical care are easier to assess.  More difficult is the question of attitudes and feelings conveyed to our children in daily interactions.

To know which attributes we deem most significant in raising our children, we may first need to know and understand them about ourselves before we can look for them in others.     

Computational Thinking

A great deal has been written lately bemoaning the way computers and technology in all its forms have taken over children’s lives.  City streets require watchful – or defensive – walking to avoid a collision with a young person focused on texting, unaware of anyone or anything else.  Riding on bus or subway it is rare to see a child without a gadget on which to play games, and even very young children seem to have cell phones.  Socializing seems to consist not of conversation but individual preoccupation with some form of technology.

The involvement in technology is reflected in the world of higher education where the number of computer science majors has more than doubled.  This also reflects a job market interested in coding and big data.  But beyond the involvement with one’s personal device, and the indispensable role of computers for information and problem solving, increasingly the interest is in how computers do what they do.  In other words, how to think like a computer.

Turning to google with a question and getting the answer in no time can seem like magic.  So do things like artificial intelligence or the use of robots for tasks that seemed to require human intelligence.  Now, however, the ability to think like a computer is gaining interest as a way to tackle problems in many areas of life.

Computational thinking is increasingly part of computer science studies in higher education but it is making inroads in various ways even for very young children.  At the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School of Tufts University, kindergarten children are learning coding with specially created wooden blocks bearing bar codes used to program robots.  Learning the language of machines is thought to be as basic as writing is to proficiency in a foreign language.

Computational thinking is being promoted as a key to abstraction, critical thinking, and problem solving.  But with that comes the tendency to view computer science knowledge as supreme, and better than that obtained in other fields.  Unfortunately, this is a tendency that arises with any newly developed area of knowledge, which then begins to take over education as a whole.

Promoting new ideas as the answer to superior education has a long history.  When my children were in grade school, “new math” became the answer for teaching arithmetic to young children.  Tom Lehrer, the songwriter/entertainer, did a parody at that time which included the line, “base 8 is really just like base 10 – if you’re missing two fingers.”  The joke being that it created more confusion than understanding.

Another example is the introduction of sight-reading or whole words approach to teaching young children how to read.  For a time, teaching phonics was abandoned, to the detriment of many – if not most – children.  Without a knowledge of phonics there were no tools for tackling new words that had not been seen before.

The unintended consequences of throwing out the old in favor of something new are usually not foreseen until new problems are created.  There are avenues other than computational thinking to abstraction, critical thinking, and problem solving.  Educator Ken Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value, which he believes comes about through different ways of seeing things.

A mother told me that her four-year-old son loves the Amazon children’s show, “Creative Galaxy,” and said with excitement, “Mom, everywhere you look there is art.”  She also reported that he later said, “An artist always wants to be doing art, even when it is not possible,” as she was trying to get him ready to leave the house.

Clearly, there are values nourished in ways other than computational thinking, which we have to make sure are preserved in our system of education.

 

 

 

Listen to the Children

During a family discussion that was not getting to the point, my 14-year-old granddaughter asked if we would like her to tell us what the discussion was about.  She then proceeded to cut through the confusion and in one sentence summarized the main idea.  Hearing approval from the adults she said, “Your problem is that you don’t listen to the children.  You should listen to the children!”

I have thought about her words many times since then, finding them hitting the mark in many situations.  Parents often think that listening to the children means doing what they say or giving them what they want.  Really it means, hearing the message behind their words.  They can’t always say directly what they mean, at times not having the language to express it, but also not always able to fully conceptualize what they would like us to know.

One way children learn about their feelings and ideas is when parents and other adults translate for them what they may be trying to say.  It is also how we, as their parents, learn about our children – where they are in their development and what they may be trying to understand about their world.

Even when we can’t – or don’t want – to respond to what seems like a request or a complaint, we can respond to the message behind it if we can hear it.  This is true even when messages are delivered through behavior instead of words.  Often, if the behavior is something of which we disapprove or are worried about, we can get focused on our concern rather than on what the behavior can tell us.  Yet, it is understanding the message that can help us know what to do about the behavior.

An area of concern that parents frequently ask about is social behavior.  Parents  worry if children show what may seem like aggressive behavior but also about the opposite – what is often called “shyness”, or anxiety in social situations.  Children who seem overly sensitive to perceived rejection or criticism may also be a source of concern to their parents.

A range of behavior may reflect a variety of personality traits that are expressed in certain ways in a developmental stage that may be especially difficult for that child.  Yet parents see the behavior in isolation and ask if it is “normal.”  The child becomes defined by the behavior rather than the behavior being understood in terms of our knowledge of the child.

Parents recently expressed concerns about their daughter who breaks down crying in situations that are not daunting to her peers or classmates.  The parents wanting to be supportive, have expressed this by giving long explanations to the child about the situations that upset her in order to minimize their importance. 

The mother related an incident of the child feeling slighted by a friend which was completely unrealistic.  The mother began trying to explain to the child what had really happened.  Instead, the child cut her off by saying, “I know, I know”, then suggesting a possible alternative solution to the situation.  Her solution seemed equally unrealistic to the mother but she was pleased that the child was thinking about a different possibility for her own reactions.

A way to understand this is that the child was telling her mother that she has heard all the explanations and they are not helping her.  What she needs is a way to behave differently and is struggling to figure out how she might do that.  In effect, she hears the explanations from her parents as confirmation that there is something wrong with her that she wants to fix.  What would be helpful instead, is the recognition that something in her life is hard for her and that her parents are there to help her.

If we listen to the children they are telling us who they are and how we can help them through life’s bumps.         

    

Blame the Mother!

At a moment when health care is front and center in public awareness, a new book makes an important contribution to the discussion.  BLAMING MOTHERS: American Law and the Risks to Children’s Health by Linda C. Fentiman, a professor of law at Pace University, gives us an understanding of the way in which a historical and cultural pattern of blaming mothers, has been incorporated into the law through the interpretation of basic legal concepts as applied to matters relating to children’s health or well-being.

In a compelling analysis, Fentiman shows how various themes come together to affect the application of the law in real life issues.  One theme is that we tend to think of legal concepts used in such cases as objective, based on factual definition, while in reality they are subjective, influenced by psychological and social factors.  Such factors influence the definition of risk and “the reasonable person”, as well as negligence, which involve judgments of behavior.

A second theme is the way in which these concepts when applied in actual cases bring to bear the biases of judges, juries and others who make judgments that come into play legally such as police, mental health professionals and prosecutors.  Yet the meaning given to these legal concepts has influenced the way we think of the legal and social responsibility for the health of our children.

An underlying theme that emerges from the application of these concepts and other legal principles is that mothers are blamed and held responsible for harm to their children.  In extreme cases, pregnant women have been convicted of damaging fetuses by their own behavior, have been forced to have medical interventions against their wishes, and mothers have been punished for abusive behavior of children by their partners.

Fentiman identifies social constructs that also operate to make mothers the culprits in issues involving children’s health and well-being.  One such is the need to find the cause of things.  We tend not to think in terms of multiplicity of causes, for example that illness may be caused by many environmental or genetic factors other than a mother’s neglect.  Assigning blame to mothers can provide a more satisfying answer when true causes are difficult to identify.

Psychiatry has given us the “schizophrenigenic” mother, as well as the ‘iceberg” mother as the cause of autism, theories that have since been shown to be false.  These supposed medical findings reflect the kind of bias that is often used in legal proceedings to explain outcomes in terms of maternal culpability.

Assigning blame to mothers also allows us to avoid responsibility for the role of social causes in determining children’s health.  Instead of considering how poor nutrition, exposure to environmental hazards such as lead in paint and drinking water, poverty, poor educational or work opportunities, and easy availability of guns may explain outcomes for children, it is easier to hold mothers responsible.

Also, it is easier to blame mothers than to take larger social responsibility for the lack of day care, the economic reality of mothers’ need to work outside the home, and a work world that does not allow time for staying home to care for a sick child.  Legal decisions tend to favor the still prevalent belief that caring for children is a mother’s responsibility and she is responsible for whatever may go wrong.

Unhappily, many mothers share that belief about themselves as well as about other mothers.  Unfortunately, much that is written for and about mothers ultimately supports that belief and promotes the guilt to which mothers are already prone.  A finding of guilt legally serves as a reinforcement.

BLAMING MOTHERS is a welcome and much needed antidote to such reinforcement.

 

The End of Childhood?

The late educator and cultural critic Neil Postman, wrote a book he called “The Disappearance of Childhood.”  In it he described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy.  Prior to modern times, children were considered little adults and were not distinguished from adults in terms of dress, behavior, or activities, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.

Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. “Childhood . . . was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be  ways they could assimilate psychologically.    The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”

Postman was concerned about the growing impact of the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – and made the point that “language is an abstraction about experience whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.”  He made the further point that the visual media erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible.  It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience.  He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.

“The Disappearance of Childhood” was written in 1994 and using Postman’s analysis we would have to conclude that childhood has actually already disappeared.  What he attributed to the prevalence of television has multiplied a thousand-fold with the advent of new technology and the viewing – rather than reading – of previously unimaginable information available to children.

Now, the word is that the Disney Channel, with ratings that are declining as children reach puberty earlier, and have had access early on to “adult” media, is joining the fray with a new drama dealing with complex, emotional issues.  Aimed at children ages 6 to 14, the story involves a thirteen-year-old girl raised by her grandmother who learns that the woman she thought was her sister is actually her mother.  Aside from the issue raised about teen age pregnancy, the drama apparently also raises questions about sexuality and gender.  

The point has been made that these are more authentic issues and apparently, the thought is that parents will watch with their children to interpret and answer questions that may arise.  An immediate question relates to the designated age range of the targeted viewers.  Are parents ready to have six-year-olds and teen-agers exposed to the same material?  How will six-year-olds process these kinds of many faceted emotional issues?  

Many years ago, at a conference on censorship, the late anthropologist Margaret Mead told a personal anecdote about her mother prohibiting certain books when she was growing up because she didn’t want her children exposed to bad grammar.  Mead recalled that she would read those books at night by flashlight under the blanket.  She contrasted that to the kinds of magazine covers and headlines children now see at the corner newsstands as they go to school.

Mead’s point was that there is a difference between surreptitiously reading prohibited material and having such material publicly available.  The difference lies in the message being delivered and received.  In one case, children know what is disapproved of by the adult world, in the other, the message received is that anything goes.   

 We are far from the idea that childhood means withholding secrets – meaning  complex, emotional subjects – until children are ready to process them emotionally and psychologically.  Parents are the ones best able to assess where their children are in that process and to impart their own values accordingly.

As in many other areas, parents confront the challenge of a social world moving in a different direction.

   

 

 

Generational Divide

During a small, adult social gathering, the conversation somehow turned to individual memories of growing up in different parts of the country and in family backgrounds that differed from one’s own, both educationally and economically.  A theme that emerged in the discussion was the difficulty encountered in trying to forge a  path different from the one expected.

One person said that his memory of growing up was of getting the message from his parents that because of their age and experience, they knew better what was best for him than he did.  Such messages discourage pushing ahead on one’s own to explore different possibilities.

What comes to mind is “Far From the Tree,” by Andrew Solomon.  A gay man, he writes of his own difficulties growing up and says that while his parents were never derisive, they were uncomfortable with his difference from them and encouraged him to try to be straight.  Interestingly, he began his research with parents of disabled children, in order to look at the process by which parents reconcile themselves to children who present significant challenges.  He writes that he was on a quest to forgive – perhaps understand – his own parents for pressing him to be “untrue” to himself.

Solomon writes that our first task is to get to know, and to relate to who our own child is rather than the one we imagined or hoped for.  He suggests that referring to the process of having children as reproduction promotes the idea that we are reproducing ourselves through that act.  While that may be true for the species it is misleading in respect to individuals.

While parents may have a need to see themselves in their children, this applies also to what they would not like to see repeated about themselves.  In part, too, there may be a wish on the part of parents to correct in raising their children what they did not like about the way they themselves were raised.  There is a tendency to hold our parents responsible for our own faults.

These factors may all be part of the issue of parental expectations and the way this impacts on children as they develop.  But for parents, the question becomes one of their changing role as children grow.  The human infant begins life completely dependent on adult care.  Parents are responsible for an infant’s very survival and can begin to feel that everything they do is of great significance in that regard.

Gradually, the infant grows and develops new skills that allow for some independent functioning.  This emerging independence is enhanced by the ability to walk and talk.  Cognitive development means that children begin to form ideas about things and to express them.

In this process, the push toward autonomy begins to assert itself and children may protest or rebel against parental wishes or expectations as they express their own wishes that may differ.  For parents, the story of development becomes one of protecting or letting go.  In other words, at every stage as children push for new freedoms, parents have to assess how safe it is to let go.  Are children really capable of the freedoms to which they aspire?

There are no universal answers to the questions that arise in this process.  A parent has to know his or her own child and make a judgment accordingly.  It involves taking a risk – including the risk of making a mistake.  For parents the risk is their responsibility as protectors.  For a child, or young adult, the risk may lie in taking responsibility for one’s own decisions, good or bad.

Parent may feel they have the experience to know what is best for their child.  The challenge is to know the child as well as they know their own life experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just Say No!

Just a little two letter word but a word with so much power.  When children are beginning to talk that is often one of their first words.  A word of defiance letting parents know they have their own wishes, different from those of their parents.  For parents, it is a word of authority intended to stop certain behavior, or as a response to a child’s demands, as in “no,” to candy before lunch.

Advice to “just say no,” has been promoted as a method young people should use on their own behalf as a way of rejecting drug use or early sexual behavior.  This of course depends on their ability to use the internal controls that parents provide externally while children are developing.

Why is “No!” so powerful?  Does it accomplish any of its intended purposes when used by parents or children?  It certainly can be effective with young children as a way of interrupting potentially dangerous behavior – such as a child about to run across the street or touch a hot pot.  It may be less effective if a child hears no all the time and it becomes something to tune out.

It is a powerful word for little children in particular, who often feel powerless in the face of their big, strong parents.  Saying no becomes a way for them to assert themselves.  Defiance is part of a process of establishing oneself as a separate person, different from one’s parents.  Defiance may be part of that process for teenagers as well, although by then the “no” may be acted out in more ways than words.

The ability of young adults to use “no” as a way of rejecting self-destructive behavior depends on many aspects of where they are in their development.  Some of the things known about adolescents are their inability to judge risk, and their belief in their own immortality, which can get in the way of their ability to monitor their own behavior.

Parents often complain about the fact that saying no doesn’t accomplish their goals.  Children continue to engage in behavior they have been told not to, or to demand things after parent have told them no.  Apparently, the word begins to lose its power when used by parents although not by children when refusing to comply with parents’ wishes.

For this reason, saying no does remain powerful as a provocation for confrontation.  Parents get frustrated when children don’t comply with their wishes or requests.  They then have to find a way to deal with the unacceptable behavior, but they also may react to having their authority challenged.  This often can lead to an escalation of the conflict between parent and child as parents seek stronger ways of asserting their authority – such as punishments or time-out.

Since saying no is so often counter-productive there are alternatives to be tried.  For young children, distraction – interesting them in something other than what they want at the moment – is often successful.  As children develop greater cognitive and language skills there are other ways of saying no without sounding like you are the boss.  Showing compassion for their inability to get what they want is almost always a good first step.

Although finding a compromise is not always possible, even letting children know that you understand what they want can help them feel that there is a possibility that their wishes may be met – if not now, perhaps at some point.

Is no in a direct form ever useful?  I heard from several parents about children who are now young adults expecting the kind of support from their parents – financial and otherwise – that no longer seems appropriate.   In many ways. this is a replay of the same kind of conflicts that existed earlier – except that now expectations of the grown children are different.

What is the same, is that parents who may have no trouble saying no to their children about certain things, find it hard to say no when it comes to withholding a kind of support to their children.  As parents, we want to give to our children and this can get us into trouble with little children as well as big ones.

Saying no is emotionally loaded, both in its power and lack of power.

 

 

Is Getting Mad Bad?

A favorite anecdote of mine is about my then four-year-old son telling me that my problem is that I “overblow.”  Asking him what that meant, he explained that I don’t get mad when I am mad and then I get so mad that I “overblow.”  Since then I have learned that while “overblowing” does often apply to parents, it applies as well to children.   

No one likes being the target of someone else’s anger, especially if it is someone close to you.  Children’s anger sometimes feels like an accusation – as if they’re saying you are a bad mother.  Sometimes they even say as much.  A child may be angry because he couldn’t have something he wanted, or do something he wanted to do.  His angry behavior is his way of protesting, but instead of it sounding like something about him, we hear it as being about us – his behavior is our fault.  And we want to feel – and our children to feel – that we are “good mothers” even when asking children to do things they don’t like.

Children’s loss of control can make us start to feel out of control ourselves.  Because the behavior is unacceptable, we too often get focused on trying to stop it.  Often this ends in an escalation of the situation.  Not able to control our child’s behavior, our own anger takes hold, and it sometimes seems as though we are getting down to our child’s level. 

The problem is that because children have not yet developed inner controls, but act out their feelings, feelings and behavior seem to be one and the same.  The feelings take form in behavior, and because the behavior feels threatening we label it “bad”.  Young children are unable to tell the difference between feelings and behavior and so begin to believe that it is the feelings that are bad. 

The fact that angry feelings are joined emotionally to attacking behavior in childhood  seems to color our response to anger throughout life.  We were all children once, and sometimes still have trouble separating angry feelings from behavior, both in our children and in ourselves.  We may still be afraid that the intensity of our feelings will be matched by the enormity of our actions.  It can begin to feel unsafe not only to express anger but to feel it.

I think that is what my son with four-year-old wisdom was trying to tell me:  if you don’t express anger when you feel it, the anger just grows until you then “overblow.”  Perhaps, without realizing it he was also explaining why he, too, would sometimes overblow.    

In fact, our job is to help our children learn that their feelings are acceptable, but hitting, screaming and throwing things are not.  We can only teach this, though, if we can feel that our child’s anger is not dangerous, does not make us bad mothers, and does not have to be wiped out in order for our own wishes to prevail.

To accept your child’s anger and teach him to express it differently, you have to be ready to hear disagreement.  You have to be able to tolerate the fact that your child doesn’t like something you are doing – in fact doesn’t like you at that moment.  In other words, you have to risk feeling like a “bad” mother.  If you can accept this you don’t have to counterattack with your own anger, or give in, making you feel helpless and your child’s anger seem powerful and frightening – to him and to you.

In other words, you won’t have to “overblow.”

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can’t Wait!

A familiar question from parents is, when is it appropriate for children to be given various degrees of freedom and to receive certain privileges?  Children’s push to do things on their own begins at a very young age, increasing along with the acquisition of skills that make independent functioning possible, such as walking and other motor skills.  Often conflicts that arise during the “terrible twos” are a result of a child’s demand to “do it myself.”

The problem is not only that children’s reach exceed their grasp – that is they often are not yet really able to do on their own the things they think they can do.  It is also that parents are not always clear about children’s actual capabilities and are mindful of their responsibilities as parents for their children’s safety and well-being.  Parents lean toward being protective, but they also are often unsure about which expectations are appropriate at various developmental stages.

Another major issue that arises, is that along with children’s emerging skills is their immaturity in frustration tolerance.  They find it hard to wait for what they want, or to achieve what they might like to try to do on their own.  This impatience is a familiar characteristic of youngsters and for a long period of development may be out of synch with the development of other skills, emerging for example as a renewed source of conflict in adolescence.

In today’s culture one sees typical areas of conflict between children and parents with regard to the acquisition of various material things both when viewed as a privilege of adulthood and as requiring a mature sense of responsibility.  This is especially true with respect to the world of technology and all the electronic “toys” it has spawned.

The iPad and iPhone are good examples – following what seem to be various games and aps that even very young children play on their parents’ phones and electronic devices.  One parent who had very clear ideas about material things and values had refused to get her son an iPad.  She then discovered that he was, in fact, the only child in his class without an iPad and she was then torn between her own values and the social pressure of peer groups.

Many parents of teenagers have talked about the iPhone in particular having become the designated birthday gift for thirteen-year old’s and the competition relating to individual birthdates to which this has given rise.  The issue apparently is not just the phone itself and the ability to talk to friends, but also access to the larger internet which raises many other questions also raised by the computer.

Of course, the questions parents are facing are actually those of our society itself.  Those who follow the business world and writers about economics, refer to a theory of behavioral economics used to explain our consumption habits.  This theory holds that there is a tendency to choose short-term rewards over long-term gains.

There are reports in business news about the push in the world of technology toward automation within the home.  Apparently, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all working on variations of a personal assistant who can not only take over many functions such as keeping bank accounts, controlling appliances, or making purchases, but also seemingly will anticipate one’s every wish – and do it faster.

What comes to mind is a famous experiment by Walter Mischel at Stanford in the 1960’s.  A child was seated at a table with a marshmallow in front of him and told he could eat the marshmallow when the examiner left but that if he waited until the examiner’s return, he would get two marshmallows instead of just one.  The results of this experiment were later used to connect the ability to wait – to delay gratification – with later academic and other success.

     It appears that a trait parents are encouraged to foster in their children – the ability to delay gratification – runs counter to the move toward immediate pleasure in the world of consumption.  The implication of this is something that confronts us all – not just parents.   

Sibling Stories

Recently, I came across a personal reminiscence someone wrote about her relationship with her two male siblings.  She recounts being asked at a function they all attended what the secret was of their close attachment to one another, which the guest hoped to achieve with her own children.   Her brother responded both seriously and with tongue-in-cheek, that the secret was the bitter divorce of their parents.

Although the response was hardly what the inquirer expected, the question itself is a familiar one.  Over the years, I have heard that question raised by many parents.  It often is expressed in relation to the expected arrival of a sibling and more often in connection with concerns about sibling behavior.

The creation of a new family of siblings with oneself as the parent, arouses many feelings about one’s own history with one’s sibling – both positive and negative.  Parents may hold up their own sibling relationships as a model they seek to achieve, or the opposite, describing terrible feelings and behavior they would like to avoid.

Parents locked in hostile battle is certainly not the solution new parents are seeking.  Yet, at the same time, it may come as a surprise to recognize that often sibling behavior is more about them than about the sibling themselves.  After all, sibling rivalry means rivalry between siblings for the love and/or attention of their parents.

We think of siblings as meaning children having the same parents.  But in fact, every child’s experience growing up is different from that of his or her sibling.  Listening to the conversation of adult siblings, it is striking how often they remember family experiences in different ways, as if not having had the same experience.  And in fact, they haven’t.

The expression of feelings of rivalry can be most acute with the arrival of the first sibling.  The first child, having been the king or queen of the manor, is suddenly seemingly dethroned by one perceived as an interloper.  It is not surprising to hear some of the things that children say about new babies, such as instructing parents to take the baby back to the hospital, or better yet to be thrown out with the garbage.    

At times, parents may be distressed by these comments and try to persuade a child that these are not true feelings.  Such expression may run counter to an image I often hear from parents that a child can’t wait for his new brother or sister’s arrival and is more than accepting of the idea.  In fact, many mothers in particular, are more in tune with the feeling that they are usurping the place of the firstborn with a sibling and express guilt about doing that.  It is as though they are betraying the first child by having a second.

The point is that our behavior toward our children’s sibling behavior, is very much influenced by our own family history, and the feelings elicited by the treatment of one child toward another.  At times, it may be difficult not to feel protective of a younger child and view the older one as the aggressor, even though little ones can often be most provocative.

The difference in developmental stages of two siblings can make for challenges in management as each may interfere in the interests of the other.  More challenging still, is helping children deal with a major task of the early years, which is to learn to distinguish between feelings and behavior, to accept the feelings but control the unacceptable behavior.

That is why a major task for us as parents is to accept the negative feelings that children have for each other at various times.  Of course, we protect our children from hurting each other physically, but that doesn’t mean their feelings are wrong, or that they are somehow bad for having such feelings. 

It is pointless to try to respond to children’s requests that they be loved most or best, or to quantify feelings of love for each child.  The truth of the matter is that a family encompasses different relationships, with different feelings at different times, and that part of the benefit of being in a family is learning how to accept that reality.  Much of sibling behavior is a reflection of the difficulty in learning.

We can best help children learn when we accept that reality ourselves.