What Vanilla Pudding Taught Me About Sibling Rivalry
I can hear their voices jabbing each other even though I’m at the other end of the house. Without going to the kitchen, I picture the scene: the 10-year-old standing on the counter, reaching into the highest shelf where we keep our snacks and processed lunch foods, swiping the last vanilla pudding. Her 8-year-old sister is dancing around the stool that has been pushed up to the counter, clutching her empty lunch kit and claiming the last pudding for herself. Of course there are granola bars, yogurt, crackers, apples, carrot sticks, sunflower seeds, oranges, and cheese available but that is irrelevant now. Now that everyone knows there’s only one pudding left. Now that there’s something to fight over.
Their arguing crescendos while I hunker over my youngest daughter on the change table and decide to stay put. The lamplight throws soft shadows on her nursery walls while she sucks on her toes. I take my time, rubbing cream on her bottom, slowly securing her diaper, and tickling her under the neck. I definitely don’t want to leave my sanctuary and head out into the war zone now. Unfortunately, my daughters bring the battlefront to me; I hear the stomp, stomp, stomp coming down the hall way, the loud shrieks and names growled in exasperation—Su-S-A-A-A-N-na! B-e-L-É-É-É-n!
Keeping my hands on my baby, I balance on one foot and lean to shut the door with the other. It doesn’t help. In the next second they’re in the room, tripping over themselves and their words.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, NO,” I interrupt the onslaught of accusations. “I don’t want to hear it–”
That Susanna. She’s good at getting the last word (or many words) in and interrupting. Almost as good as me.
“Get out of the room and work this out in the kitchen. By the time I come out I don’t want to hear one word. Not one! You can figure this out yourselves.”
I sound like I mean it but I’m not sure. Can they figure it out themselves? Are they able to reach a resolution on their own?
According to all the “You NEVERs” and “I ALWAYS” crackling in the air it seems unlikely, but I stand my ground. One of my favorite techniques is the ignore-it-til-it-goes-away approach to sibling rivalry. I could try to pass this off as parenting tool, but it’s more of an exhausted surrender. And quite honestly, I’m tired of channeling communication gurus like Marshall Rosenberg. Tired of trying to be a professional mediator and posing questions like “How are you feeling right now? Have you told your sister what you need?” I reach over, shut the door with my foot, again, and their voices recede to a background static.
Over the last few days we’ve been watching Twelve Angry Men, an old black-and-white movie with lots of talk, no action, and no ice castles or princesses. In fact, the script is played out in a single room while twelve jurors argue around a table for the entire movie. Astonishingly, my daughters love it. At first, I wonder if this is downright weird. Which kids are interested in watching somewhat incomprehensible dialogue between Henry Fonda and other, now long-dead, actors? Then I think about their lives and the amount of time they spend convincing, accusing, complaining, and provoking each other. Perhaps they love the film because they can relate so well to the fighting and arguing. The icing on the cake is that all the verbal discourse ends up saving the accused’s life.
It’s probably a stretch to draw a connection between the movie and our lives to redeem our domestic conflicts. Mostly, I can’t foresee anything worthwhile resulting from all the nattering, much less anyone’s life being saved. And, the main reason my daughters argue is because it’s difficult for them to accommodate their sister’s ideas and egos when they’re consumed with their own. But I am realizing that their need to argue is wired in them for a purpose. To figure out how to negotiate, persuade, feel the resistance of another point of view–like a tiger cub wrestling with their sibling–and learn how far to take the fight. Just like play is actually a survival tool for children, necessary for brain growth and development, so too is fighting. My daughters engage in conflict precisely because they need to build those skills.
About ten minutes after the shouting peaks during the pudding incident, Susanna unzips her backpack. She takes out her lunch kit and opens it up. There, in her lunch kit, sits an untouched pudding. A vanilla pudding. Just like the one they were fighting over. Belén looks on, incredulous.
Susanna glances down and says, “Oh, that? It’s leftover from yesterday. I don’t even like pudding.”
Belén is visibly stunned.
Then Susanna adds quickly, “Let’s not talk about it anymore, I’m feeling just fine now! Don’t even worry about it.”
Don’t even worry about it? Feeling just fine? Really? That’s it? That’s what a morning’s worth of conflict and angst boils down to? It’s so incredible I almost start another round of family fireworks. But I don’t. We’ve had enough of a show, and more than our share of skill-building this morning.
Tricia Friesen Reed is an educator, writer, and storyteller with international experience in teaching and community development. She loves to see people recognize and use their creative gifts and is the founder of Wonderscape Retreats (nature-based creative arts retreats and workshops). Her own writing has been published in literary journals and her blog. Tricia lives with her husband and three daughters in Saskatchewan, Canada.