To The Future Parent Of A Second Child

Dear Parent:

Somewhere you are out there, watching in wonder as your little one climbs the slide. You’re remembering those precious, early days when you doted on each tiny fingernail and noticed as day by day, visible eyelashes appeared and that little face learned to break into a wobbly smile.

Now, you dream of adding another to your family, a second round-headed creature with wide baby eyes, someone to introduce your angel to the joys of sibling-hood, to a second darling who will toddle arm in arm with your first, inventing together those goofy games of childhood that only the other knows.

Just know that someday you, too, will be perched in the bow of a canoe, floating on a lake as smooth as a David Hockney swimming pool. Overhead a herd of clouds will graze on the blue of the sky, while the prow of your boat cuts through a calm flotilla of ducks, while behind you in the canoe, your children will fight the whole damned rental hour, maybe because they are hungry, or tired, or because it’s just one of those opposite days when they despise each other.

Every peace-making effort has failed—explanations, negotiations, distractions, all have proved useless. It has already escalated to war in the back of that canoe—behind you, out of sight, in a canoe riding low on the water— and nothing you can do will help.

You never imagine your children locked in battle, because (choose one)

a) They’re bored and it’s fun to irritate their sib

b) The sound of their sibling’s chewing is driving them insane. (And they have a diagnosis of sensory issues to back up their irritation.)

c) Their sibling is ignoring them, but repeatedly whacking or even licking sib’s hair will capture sib’s attention.

d) They know that if they lick their sibling’s hair long enough, or whack the same spot often enough—presto! They’ve got Mom and Dad’s attention—the Gold Standard for even teenaged kids. (Heck, let’s be honest, for adult children as well.)

I’ve read a ton of sibling rivalry articles and parenting books, plus, our state offers very inexpensive parenting education classes. Very few of the techniques seem to work. Perhaps this is because we have a wide age difference between siblings, and perhaps because we have some special needs that mess things up.

That said, there are a few things that I have found that can (sometimes) make a difference:

1. Catch the kids before they’re bored and provide something fun that they can do together.

2. Catch them in those moments when they are playing well or helping one another, and praise them to the skies.

3. Don’t accidentally set them at odds via competition. For instance, I still reward my kids if they’re spontaneously praised for good behavior by any random adult—but I set it up so that no matter which is praised, both received the same reward. Thus, they wind up cheering each other toward better behavior rather than trying to trip each other up.

4. Try to avoid letting them get too hungry or too tired. And since this is impossible in the real world without having a fairy godmother or a rotation’s worth of nannies on hand—

5. Ignore, ignore, ignore, detach. And, if you have any religion—or even if you don’t—pray.

Back in that canoe—straighten your shoulders. Relax. Go Zen. Don’t try to fight it. Everybody has their off days, right? And you wanted these children, desperately, didn’t you? One bursts into tears while the other, irritated beyond calming, oars seaweed on the first one’s head. Today, right now, they will fight over anything—which way to go, if that’s a loon or some kind of black duck, and whether or not it can be called “seaweed” if it’s growing in a lake.

A loon cries, its lonely song echoing over the water. A Great Blue Heron flaps overhead. Each separate wavelet sparkles like a sequin in a chorus girl’s gown. This, too, shall pass.