The Perfect Family Picture
I am going to paint a picture, with high definition audio, of how my house looks and sounds as I attempt to write this article.
“Ma! Tzvi is being mean to me again!” a shrill voice squeals from downstairs.
“Ma, Tehilla is making me be mean to her!” a slightly-less shrill voice squeals in response.
Do they mean me?
Is it too late to change my title to Ima? Madre? Anu? The woman who lives in your house but doesn’t want to be involved in your fights?
I ignore the squealing, hoping against hope this dispute will resolve itself and I can keep my hands clean.
“Ma! Tzvi is touching my stuff again!”
“Ma! Tehilla is making me touch her stuff again!”
Yeah, so the ignoring thing works like a charm.
I know that no good will come from my involvement in this spat (estimated to be the 1600th spat of the week). History has taught me that the more I try to help, the more these two turn on each other.
But because I fear that if left to their own devices, they will eventually come to blows (and I haven’t met my deductible yet), I march out of my room with the sternest expression I can muster.
Don’t lose your cool, I remind myself.
If you lose your cool, they win.
So, as I take deep breaths and pretend I’m on a beach in the South Pacific, I think about one of those tactics I read about in a parenting book.
Do not negotiate for your children.
Let them do the negotiating for themselves.
“Guys,” I say authoritatively. “Please sit down across from each other and work this out calmly.”
Dutifully, they march to the table and work it out like a team of experienced arbitrators, and the fight is over as quickly as it began.
They stare at me, their arms crossed against their chests, and make no moves at all toward the dining room table.
“Why should I talk to her? She started it!”
“And why should I talk to him? He’ll twist around everything I say!”
I stare back at them, pretending I know what I’m doing, but inside I feel both hopeless and useless.
As a kid, I dreamed about being a lawyer when I grew up. Now I realize I would have been a terrible lawyer.
I would have paid off the plaintiff and the defendant just to get them to stop fighting!
But these are my kids – not well-paying clients – so I need to stand my ground.
“If you won’t negotiate with each other, then go to your rooms until you’re willing to negotiate,” I insist.
They march off to their rooms and slam their doors behind them, but I am the one who feels like crying.
Is it me?
Is it our house?
Am I doing something that makes it impossible for my kids to get along?
Bewildered, I think about the report cards these two brought home not long ago.
The comments from the teachers were warm and glowing and impossibly hard to believe:
Tzvi has a lev tov and treats everyone with respect!
Tehilla is always happy to lend someone a helping hand!
Did they bribe their teachers with the 40 bags of hot sauce chips they bring for snack every day?
If not, why don’t they ever bring those amazing characteristics home with them?
I know – sibling rivalry is normal.
But my children don’t seem like rivals. They seem like enemies.
And it breaks my heart.
If you’re wondering why I’m focusing on only these two and not the rest of my gang, let me explain.
My family has a unique structure.
My oldest, Naftali, is autistic, so his interactions with his siblings are very different than the neurotypical older brother.
In the sweetest way, my younger kids see themselves as Naftali’s protector. They almost never fight with him.
At the other end of the family tree, we have Ezriel, our “baby” at age 4, and he is the apple of everyone’s eye. No one fights with him – he is too cute, and they’d rather pick on someone their own size.
That leaves Tzvi and Tehilla, who are three years apart, to share the dubious honor of being the “middle children.”
These two only have each other – for better and for worse, for fun and for fighting.
What I wish for, more than almost anything, is that they’d realize how much fun they could be having with each other if they weren’t always at each other’s throats.
I try to do all the right things.
I try not to take sides (I say, “You’re both impossible!”).
I try to give them individual opportunities to shine. (I say, “You each need to go to your room!)
I try to focus on the uniqueness of their personalities. (I say, “You’re being obnoxious and you’re being too sensitive!”).
Okay, so maybe I’m doing nothing right. But their fighting is an endless cycle that leaves me feeling frustrated, fed up, and completely ineffective.
On so many days, I wish my family could be more like a Norman Rockwell painting, a beautiful portrait that would depict Tzvi and Tehilla sitting at the dining room table, laughing uproariously as they played a fun but competitive game of chess.
Right now, that could never happen.
Tehilla would accuse Tzvi of cheating and Tzvi would insist that Tehilla just wasn’t smart enough to keep up with all the rules.
Come to think of it, Norman Rockwell would flee my house, refer my children for military school, and retire from painting idyllic scenes of children, sticking to painting cats or still-life fruit bowls instead.
I know my kids aren’t reading this (they’re too busy fighting) but if they were, this is what I would say to them:
Siblings are an incredible gift, a gift not everyone is given.
I want you two to like each other.
I want you two to make memories together.
I want you two to realize that your bond is one that only you two share, and it could be beautiful and powerful and magical – if you weren’t always tearing each other down.
But alas, this article has no happy ending – yet.
I have no magic potion and no failproof parenting strategy to transform my kids from foes to friends.
All I can offer if you are feeling like me – frustrated, fed up, and a little fearful – is this:
Know that the Norman Rockwell painting doesn’t capture my family’s life either.
In fact, Norman Rockwell paintings probably don’t capture anyone’s family – because they aren’t real.
All we can pray for is that one day, be’ezras Hahem, when we are old and gray, our kids will reminisce about the good old days, and they’ll have a totally different picture than the one we have now.
They’ll remember the fun in their fighting, the color in their conflicts, the amusement in their arguments.
And maybe – just maybe – they’ll reveal that they loved each other all along.