Beyond Sibling Rivalry
Chapter 3: Look for Each Child’s Unique Abilities
Tim and Janice Appleton spent most of the little time they had together talking about what they could do to help their children (seventeen-year-old Andrea, fourteen-year-old Bill, eight-year-old Hannah, and five-year-old Mike) get along better. Andrea, Bill, Hannah, and Mike did not exactly fight. They never hurt each other physically: it was more constant cold war than physical battle. When Andrea won a leading role in a school play–she was infatuated with the theater and an aspiring actress–Bill could not resist the urge to say something sarcastic about how she probably only got the role because no one else was willing to be in such a “dumb play.” When Bill, an enthusiastic but not especially gifted athlete, finally made the jayvee basketball team after trying for two years, Andrea got even by reminding him that the team was ranked last in the league and by asking, “Why is basketball such a big deal anyway?”
The conflicts extended to the two younger children as well. Bill and Andrea regularly teased Hannah about her clothes, her “babyish” interests, and her “dumb” friends. The teasing only escalated after Hannah brought home an A on a spelling quiz. Both Bill and Andrea had trouble with spelling and found it difficult not to feel jealous. Even Mike, the youngest child, was not spared. All three of his older siblings regularly complained about him to their parents: “Why doesn’t he have to take out the trash or rake leaves? Why does he get to sleep in Mom and Dad’s bedroom when he’s scared of a thunderstorm?”
Tim and Janice told me about a family dinner that characterized the conflict between the two older children. The arguing started as soon as Tim asked, “How was school today?” Andrea, the first to respond, bubbled over with excitement “Mrs. Dee put up the tryout results today. I got the lead!” “That’s great,” Tim replied, “I remember how excited I was when I got my first big role. It was in Arsenic and Old Lace; I think I was in seventh grade.” Andrea stopped talking about her play, instead asking her father, “Who did you play? Did you have a lot of lines?” She was immediately interrupted by her brother, “Hey Dad, guess what, I got a three-pointer today. The coach said I was doing great and if I keep it up I might even be able to play varsity in two years.” Tim was about to ask his son to explain about three-pointers when Andrea chimed in, “We have this neat new makeup and you can put it on yourself. Mrs. Dee said that in the old days someone else had to put on your makeup because it was so sticky or something. Is that how it was when you were in school?”
“In junior high there was a makeup person, but when I got to drama school we had courses in makeup and then we started doing our own.”Bill interrupted again, “Hey Dad, this play stuff is boring, I wanted to tell you about the game.” Then Andrea jumped in, “Who cares about your stupid basketball anyway?” Not really knowing what to say, Tim took a shot in the dark. “Bill, look, your sister wants to talk about her part, can’t you just give her a minute before you complain that it’s boring?” But Bill couldn’t wait, “But it is boring! Play this and play that, I’m sick of it! You never ask about my games. You hardly even go to the games any more.”
At this point Tim began to think “What’s going on here? Why can’t they take turns? All I did was ask how school was. Maybe I should have stayed at work.” He wondered why Bill and Andrea were always on each other like this. It seemed like neither one of them could resist the urge to say something critical or to put the other down. Tim and Janice were both terribly upset by all the fighting. They loved their children equally and tried to treat them equally. They wanted to know why Bill thought they were interested in his sister’s theater activities, but not in his athletics. And, they asked, if it was true that they had unknowingly favored Andrea, why did she continue to put her brother down at every opportunity?
The first thing we talked about was the possibility that Tim may have unintentionally detracted from Andrea’s triumph by talking about his role in Arsenic and Old Lace. Tim said he had noticed that Andrea seemed to become more interested in his story than in telling him about her acting debutas soon as he mentioned his seventh grade play. Instead of continuing to talk about how she won the big part, who she was competing against, when rehearsals were going to start, and the thousand other details that he knew must have been on her mind, she had asked him about his role. Even though Andrea had asked him about his high-school acting experiences, Tim wished he had focused more on Andrea and her excitement, instead of bringing up his experiences in school. He felt the same way about his comments about drama school and worried that they may have given Andrea the impression that he was trying to compete with her.
Tim also felt that he had missed an opportunity with Bill. He wished that he had responded when Bill complained that too much attention was paid to “plays,” and not enough to his games. Tim knew he probably would not have gotten much of a response if he tried to talk to Bill about this at the dinner table, but he still felt it was a mistake not to have tried. What Tim really regretted, though, was having missed the opportunity to find out when Bill’s next game was so that he could assure Bill he would be there.