All’s Fair in Love and Bros

By Gregory Keer

The back seat. That dreaded section of the car that offers so much potential for sibling harmony. And yet, this seemingly innocuous space invariably serves one purpose — to be the horizontal haven of havoc.

Once my youngest child was old enough to leave the sanctuary of his car seat, he and his brothers formed a murderer’s row. I can’t remember the last time we had a ride that did not include a protest about not having enough space, a complaint about the unfairness of sitting in the middle, or a sharp elbow to the face, followed by a headlock, a foot stomp, and several cries for help.

I’m not really sure what my children think I can do for them in their moments of seatbelt-enhanced mayhem. I am often the one driving, so it’s unclear why they do not understand that the usual results from their mobile ring of wrestlemania are their own pain and me blowing more gaskets than exist under the hood of the car.

How I wish I could get my boys to resist their caged animal instincts. I’ve tried pre-trip lectures, incentives, even a couple of head-in-my hands emotional breakdowns on the side of the road. While the fighting may be dangerous given its distraction to me and my wife as drivers, what really gets me is how awful they treat each other in these situations. When these incidents occur, I despair that my boys will never be good friends and will decide to isolate from one another as they get older. Like most parents, I want my children to feel they can count on each other well beyond the efforts we make in their formative years.

However, for all my worries, the years of parenting multiple children have taught me that my sons’ warring ways belie their true adoration for each other. Whatever the conflict is, my boys do love each other. Ironically, their affection is built on constant testing. No matter how hard they hit each other, they will hug it out before the end of the day (sometimes two days, but who’s counting).

As a parent, it’s difficult to maintain this perspective, but it’s also fascinating to watch their dynamics play out. Between our oldest and youngest kids, who are separated by more than six years, we’ve seen how much effort Ari makes to get Benjamin’s attention. Ari tried wrestling many times, but Benjamin just wouldn’t engage — or would simply slug his brother to finish things off. So Ari has done everything from hiding in Benjamin’s room and jump-scaring him to squeezing between our eldest and his girlfriend on the couch. Usually, Benjamin yells at Ari to go away, which takes several efforts before the annoying younger brother responds.

My wife and I can hardly disagree that Ari is super abrasive in these instances, but we feel bad for both parties. Ari will sometimes look crestfallen that his brother denies his presence and Benjamin appears on the brink of insanity while warding off the assaults. But for all the years of tension, these two cuddle the most when it’s time to watch a movie. And recently, when Ari had a slight medical concern, Benjamin (who now studies Microbiology in college) was the one to ease his fears the most.

With Jacob, the proverbial middle child, everything is about competition with his brothers. Between Jacob and Ari, things have always been the most contentious. Closer in age, these two battle over everything, from who gets the bigger scoop of ice cream to who receives more time with the grandparents. Over the years, Jacob has jealously filched Ari’s candy stashes and best sweatshirts (when they were both similar in size). After years of being pounded on, Ari now has a habit of ragging on his brother for getting zits or having B.O. These two fight the hardest, but they defend each other the most when anyone else — including us parents — get in the way.

For Jacob and Benjamin, they too have battled over the years. Jacob often compared himself to his older brother in school, saying Benjamin wasn’t a cool dresser and bragging about his teachers liking him more than they liked Benjamin. When Jacob would ask Benjamin for help in math or history, the elder boy would throw him out of the room. Yet, these two competitors have become allies, with Jacob happily inheriting Benjamin’s hand-me-down concert t-shirts, and Benjamin frequently giving his brother life advice.

Watching these boys form their bonds over the years is one of the most gratifying aspects of parenting. Seeing them do it through an unending series of slugfests, insult contests, and chaotic car rides may make it a harrowing adventure, but I’m pretty certain it’s the battle-testing that will keep their ties strong.

© 2018 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

Posted in Adolescence, Blog, Columns by Family Man, Siblings | Leave a comment

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Gregory Keer

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday, for every reason from the marvelous meal to the four-day block of time to just be with family. Nine years ago, the festival took on extra meaning as my third child, Ari, was born just in time to celebrate at our table. And like Thanksgiving dinner, he’s been a third helping – sometimes the source of extra happiness and sometimes the wellspring of additional gastrointestinal discomfort.

A lot of my discomfort is self-imposed because I worry that, as my “third helping” of fatherhood, Ari has gotten less attention from me than my older kids received at the same age. Benjamin had 100% of me till he was three-and-a-half and Jacob got at least 50% of me for three years of his own. Ari has simply had to share my wife and me since the moment he was born.

I do try to compensate. Ari needs more of a push to do his homework than Benjamin or Jacob did. So, following a recent stretch of watching him whine (“You have no idea how hard third grade is, Dad!”) and seeing him bring home a bounty of red marker ink on his papers, I now help him kickstart the assignments. Ari also didn’t get any athletics coaching from me until last year, when I took on three sports like only a guilt-driven father can.

No matter how hard I try to give Ari more time, I still can’t make it to enough field trips or go to as many museums as I did for my first two boys. My wife struggles similarly with her allocation of hours, so we sat in bed one night during the holidays of last year and wondered aloud, “Shouldn’t Ari be getting more from his brothers to help fill in our gaps of attention?”

With six-and-a-half years between him and Ari, Benjamin has little in common with his little bro’ other than genetics. At 15, my eldest is seldom home and, when he does grace the house with his presence, he keeps the door shut like a moat-encircled drawbridge. For years, Ari tried politely knocking on the door to get Benjamin to play Legos or handball with him to minimal avail. More recently, Ari has busted into his brother’s privacy to annoy Benjamin’s buddies or steal the hidden candy Benjamin keeps in his desk. Most of their interactions end in tears – sometimes the tears are Ari’s.

Three years separate Jacob and Ari, which has helped them to connect more. Ari enjoyed three years on the same elementary-school campus with Jacob and benefited from his older brother’s tips about running for student council and participating with the school orchestra. Yet, their chronological proximity has also brought titanic wrestling matches, bone-chilling screams, and art supply thefts that go endlessly back and forth. Worse, Jacob’s burgeoning adolescence has led him to teach his brother bad language and a premature habit of commenting on lady parts.

I imagine it’s most parents’ wish that their children get along well enough to call each other best friends. While the minimal hope is that they’ll coordinate elder care for us when we became frail, we really want them to be there for each other. It’s especially valuable for Ari, who could learn so much from the siblings who have suffered through Mom and Dad the longest.

Despite the fights he gets into with the brothers and the jealousy he burns with every night they get to stay out late or receive a larger allowance, Ari’s plight as the “forgotten little man” has seen improvement over this last year. After lectures and chastisement from my wife and me, Benjamin is showing more compassion for Ari, who just wants more attention from him. When Benjamin babysits, he now doesn’t just badger Ari to get to bed, he reads books with him and helps him with math (two passions they’ve discovered they share). For his part, Jacob talks to Ari more than any of us, engaging him in conversations about friends, school, and TV shows they frequently watch together. Jacob also laughs a lot with his little brother, often because of crazy pranks they pull on Wendy and me.

As this Thanksgiving rolls up, I’m planning to do a little less worrying about Ari and a lot more admiring of the three brothers my wife and I have thrown together. Because of them, I don’t have to be the only one to fill my youngest child’s plate.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Holidays, Parenting Stress, Siblings | 1 Comment

What Dads Need to Know: Roughhousing Benefits

By Heather Shumaker

My neighbor is a stay-at-home dad. When he heard I had written a parenting book – one that included chapter titles like “Ban Chairs – Not Tag” and “Bombs, Guns, and Bad Guys Allowed,” he perked right up. “I was always being told I was “bad” as a boy because I needed to move my body,” he said.

Movement, action and rough physical play are an essential part of early childhood, for boys and girls alike. Instead of banning high energy, find ways to welcome it.

Here’s an excerpt from the book It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and
Compassionate Kids
(Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012. Reprinted with permission). The book contains a whole section called “Running Room” which explores action, power and movement. This chapter celebrates roughhousing.

Renegade Rule 17 – Only punch your friends

Dan punches Leo, and Leo punches right back.

Nearby, an adult looks on, but doesn’t interrupt. These two four-year-olds are having fun. Dan and Leo are both wearing pint-sized boxing gloves, purple and red, and standing barefoot on a tumbling mat. They are giggling and having a marvelous time.

Renegade Reason – Roughhousing—even play boxing—is social and healthy. But it has no place if someone’s angry.

When I told a fellow mother that I was writing a book which included boxing at preschool, she was shocked. “Boxing? You’ve got to be kidding me. I spend my time trying to keep their hands OFF each other!”

That can be a problem. Young kids are physical creatures. They like body contact and have a deep need for touch. Especially since verbal skills are still developing, one of the ways children show interest in a friend is through physical contact, sometimes hugs, sometimes play fights.

Lee and Janet, the founders of my childhood preschool noticed this. They watched kids play and saw how much young kids liked to wrestle. Children would roll around together like little lions or puppies. They thought: if kids want to play that way there must be a reason. Well, why not? Lee and Janet equipped rooms with wrestling mats and boxing gloves. Rough-housing games blossomed into a 40-year tradition at the School for Young Children.

Rough-housing games, like boxing and wrestling, give kids outlets for high energy and boost friendships. But only when everyone is having fun. If someone’s angry, it’s not a game. Rough-housing is not a way to settle a conflict. Games should be between willing partners who are in a playful mood.

What’s more, it turns out that boisterous play like preschool boxing is not only a legitimate way to have fun, it also plays a positive, important role in child development.

Renegade Blessings

Rough-and-tumble play helps our kids grow on many levels. A child can learn:

–       I’m strong and powerful.

–       It feels good to use my body actively.

–       I can make friends and take on new challenges.

–       I can set limits on other people and stop something I don’t like.

–       I can listen to my friends and know when to stop.

–       I can cope, even if I get hurt a little bit.

–       If someone gets hurt, we can make new rules so it doesn’t happen again.

Why it works

Whether it’s called rough-and-tumble play, boisterous play, horse play, puppy play, or rough-housing, this kind of play is a vital part of childhood. Rowdy puppy play helps bodies and brains develop. When two kids tussle on the floor, or roll around together, they are showing the need to wrestle. If we say ‘no’ to rough play, we are thwarting this need. Instead of issuing a ban (Get your hands off of him!  Quit hitting your brother. I don’t want to see any bodies touching.) think how you can best meet this age-old need.

Horse play may look like out-of-control goofing off, but it serves a deeper purpose. Studies by Dr. Jaak Panksepp show that rough-and-tumble play helps to develop the brain’s frontal lobe including the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that commands Executive Function, controls impulses and regulates behavior. The more the prefrontal cortex is developed, the better kids do in all areas of life, whether it’s social, emotional, or academic. On-going research by Dr. Adele Diamond and others suggests that Executive Function is the top predictor of kids’ success.

Roughhousing Benefits

–       Friendship

–       Energy outlet

–       Chance to experience power

–       Impulse control

–       Risk-taking

–       Building brain power

–       Body and spatial awareness

–       Need for motion

–       Need for physical touch

–       Practice setting limits on peers

–       Negotiating skills

–       Building trust with peers

–       Self-esteem

–       Reading emotions

–       Showing empathy

–       Joy

Since this part of the brain is so important, is it really any surprise that kids develop it by doing simply what kids do best? Rolling about the floor and tussling with squawks of high excitement. Rough-and-tumble play must be welcomed.

As early educator Dan Hodgins puts it: “It’s just as important to rough house with kids as to read them a story.”

More on welcoming rough-and-tumble play into your family or classroom in It’s OK Not to Share, including:

–       staging a wrestling match

–       getting hurt

–       setting kid-based rules

–       winners and losers

–       power actions

–       welcoming movement

–       benefits of risk

Heather Shumaker is the author of It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (Tarcher/ Penguin, 2012). She’s a journalist, blogger, speaker and mother of two young children, whose work has appeared in Huffington Post, New York Post, Parenting, Pregnancy and Organic Gardening. She’s a frequent guest on radio and TV shows about writing and parenting, and blogs at Starlighting Mama. You can learn more about Heather’s book at

Posted in Child Development, Featured Moms & Dads, Gender, Siblings, What Dads Need to Know | Leave a comment

Sibs At School

By Gregory Keer

For three years, my sister and I went to the same school. Kimmy was especially proud of that fact, as I witnessed one day when she told another kid that if he wasn’t nice to her, her big brother was going to beat him up. Truth be told, Kimmy was the only person I was ever really mean to back then, but somehow she knew that, on campus, we were on the same team.

In those mid-’70s years, I loved having my sister with me at school. I got a chance to show off my basketball skills at recess and my student-council speeches in sixth grade, but I also noticed her laughing with her friends at lunch and leading her third-grade class in the newspaper drive. It was great to be part of each other’s lives outside the house, even though it was just for a short time.

As a new September unfolds, my two oldest boys will converge on the same campus for the first time since Jacob, 6, was in preschool. Benjamin, 10, will begin his third year at his public elementary school and will be one of the reigning fifth graders, who will graduate at year’s end. Although he had big hurdles to jump when he transferred to the school, he has since become an expert on every nuance of the teachers, grounds and events. Jacob has soaked up his big brother’s experiences by seeing Benjamin do complicated homework and attending open houses.

“I know he’s going to annoy me,” Benjamin said in a late-summer talk I had with him about Jacob joining him on the schoolyard. “He’ll drag me over somewhere to show me something like a bug he found under a tree.”

This scenario is likely, yet even the little guy who sometimes goes all “kung fu” on Benjamin is welcome to the big brother’s kingdom. “Jacob’s good at art, so he’ll like that we do a lot of it at school,” Benjamin explained. “He’s pretty fast, too. He’ll love sports day when we do relays and obstacle courses.”

While he expects Jacob to be a bit sad and confused at a new place with people he doesn’t know, Benjamin said, “(My classmate) Sean’s brother will be going into first grade. Maybe I can get Jacob to be friends with him so he’s not alone when I’m not around.”

When I talked with Jacob, he seemed mellow about not having old pals with him at the start. “I like challenges,” he offered, as if he were vying for a corporate management position. He cannot wait to ride the bus for the first time so he can talk with the other kids and trade game cards with them. He’s also eager to check out the classrooms as a student and not just a visitor.

“Will I go to the same after-school programs as Benjamin?” he asked hopefully. Jacob has been chomping at the bit to try out a comic-book drawing class and a “rock star” program ever since Benjamin bragged about them. Jacob has even begun learning the violin so he’ll be ready to join the orchestra like his brother did in third grade.

“I hope Jacob knows it’s not easy to make it in the orchestra,” Benjamin said, showing territorialism about this particular area. “I had to practice a lot for two years before I could be a first trumpet.”

Sibling rivalry will certainly find a home away from home at school. I expect to hear competing stories about what Benjamin may have said to a cute fifth-grade girl at recess or what Jacob may have done to overflow a toilet. The key is that they will be together, if only for a year.

Today, I call my sister Kim, not Kimmy, and she’s been able to handle her own battles for years, even without her big brother down the hall. But we did build on that shared school time as part of what is now a close bond. For Jacob and Benjamin, I hope they too will learn they can depend on each other even when they’re not under Mom and Dad’s roof.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, School, Siblings | Leave a comment

Odd Man In

By Gregory Keer

“Jacob’s got to do his morning pee,” Wendy says, zipping up a lunchbox and grabbing waffles from the toaster.

Eyeing the clock, which shouts “You’re gonna be late for school,” I shepherd my five-year-old to the toilet.

“I can’t do it,” Jacob whimpers.

“Relax,” I tell him, using a voice so strained a Zen master would feel nervous.

Benjamin (age eight) runs in, nudges Jacob aside and takes a leak, putting even more pressure on my middle child.

After Benjamin skidaddles, I cheer Jacob on, “Let’s go pee!” when little naked Ari pads into the bathroom. I assume he’s there as a spectator so I forget about him.

“Go pee! Go pee! Go pee!” I chant and — sure enough — pee fountains out. Warmth bathes my foot. Giggling wafts to my ears.

“Ari!” I shout as my toddler showers my shoe with a firefighter’s gusto.

Feeling the wetness reach my socks, my frustration melts into laughter. I turn from Jacob, who finally tinkles (in the proper receptacle), kiss Ari’s proud face. The way my littlest child sees it, anything the big boys can do, he can do better.

One of my worries for my third child was that he would get left in the dust of the older kids. For much of his early life, Ari was schlepped to the other boys’ activities and restrained by a high chair or stroller as his siblings caromed around freely. Adding to his helplessness, he got sick a lot. In between countless incidents of cold and flu, Ari endured a hospital stay for a respiratory infection and surgery for ear infections.

But, in the half-year leading up to his second birthday, Ari developed into a family superstar. Armed with a head of cottony blonde hair (in a family of darker-hued tresses) and vibrant blue-green eyes, our smallest child does everything louder, faster, and funnier than his siblings did at the same age.

When he wants to be noticed at mealtime, Ari wears his bowl on his head. If his siblings fight over the remote control, he snags it, squints at Mommy or Daddy – in his attempt to wink – and tries to tune into his own show. Should he get bored at a concert, he wanders around, hugging strangers (under our supervision) with the gusto of an uncle who’s just come over from the old country.

Being the littlest person in a family of five never daunts Ari. In fact, the bigger the group the more he shines. At a minor-league baseball game, while a dozen other children begged sweetly for practice balls, Ari high-fived every pitcher in the bullpen until he got a ball. Having no idea what kind of cool souvenir he earned, he was just pleased to have outsmarted the other kids.

In true youngest child fashion, Ari imitates everything his older brothers do, then improves on it. If he notices Jacob fighting us to put on clothes, Ari grabs an outfit and attempts to dress himself. When I ask a reluctant Benjamin to scrub his teeth at night, Ari scrambles to the sink to use a spare toothbrush. Seeing Benjamin and Jacob whine as they don school bags, our little toddler disappears into a closet and emerges with a backpack, properly strapped to his shoulders.

Although Ari thinks he’s ready to join his brothers at school, he does have to work on one particular aspect of his big personality. He’s kind of a thug. Despite being in the fifth-percentile in height, he steals his daycare friends’ toys and shoves kids down during play. While this behavior works well when he wants to retaliate against a roughhousing brother, he comes off as a kind of “ant bully” among his peers. Making matters worse, he does all of this with a smile that’s more “This power thing actually works” than “Get out of my way, you worthless knave!”

I’ve seen a lot of nice, quiet third children who go about their business, resigned to their last-place finish in the family race. And while we’re working on re-channeling his daycare intimidation tactics, we couldn’t be more thankful that Ari chooses to take his place alongside his brothers.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Humor, Siblings | Leave a comment

Lovers and Fighters

By Gregory Keer

My second-grader has grown seriously shaggy hair. He thinks he looks cool. His karate instructors call him “Shaun Cassidy.” His four-year-old brother calls him “easy pickings.”

That’s why, when the two get in a scuffle, Jacob goes straight for the locks, grabbing a hearty handful in his little mitt and tugging with the expression of a cowboy rasslin’ a rodeo steer.

Often, Benjamin screams in pain, “Help! He’s pulling my hair again!” He doesn’t hit back; he just takes it until my wife or I show up for the rescue.

Jacob thinks it’s funny to see Benjamin cry. He doesn’t realize how lucky he is that the older brother who’s twice his size doesn’t rearrange his face, Picasso style.

Both my boys love more than they fight, but Benjamin’s extremely patient. Perhaps it’s because he studies Tong Soo Do martial arts and maybe it’s his in-born temperament, but this kid has the tolerance of Gandhi.

He’s the kind of child who, when told it’s OK to shove an opponent out of the way in soccer, asks, “But can I stop and tell him ‘I’m sorry’?”

Now Jacob’s different. Sure he’s charming as hell and, as he matures, is learning to channel his burning emotions into monkey-bar athleticism and an ever-increasing vocabulary. But, man, no one wants to be within ten feet of a ticked-off Jacob for fear of meeting his fists of fury.

That’s not to say that Jacob doesn’t have his reasons for wanting to belt Benjamin in the kisser. Even when all Jacob wants to do is scribble with a crayon alongside Benjamin while he’s doing homework, my eldest son isn’t shy about dishing such classic brother lines as, “You’re so annoying!” and “Get away from me!”

Then there are the times when my Zen-master of a son just loses it. This happened the other day as Jacob dared to pick up Benjamin’s much-beloved GameBoy in the middle of record-setting Pokemon game. My seven-year-old shoved Jacob to the floor. Jacob yelled like a howler monkey and barreled his head into his big brother’s stomach. Benjamin roared back and threw his little brother back down before I decided to break it up.

While watching this unfold, part of me was dumbfounded – maybe a little entertained (even one-year-old Ari found the whole thing hysterically funny) — at how it went down. Part of me was proud of Jacob for being unafraid of Benjamin. Another part of me was OK with Benjamin showing some toughness against his younger brother’s aggression.

Once I apprehended my two “extreme fighters,” I realized I wasn’t disappointed in them. It was a mixed-up feeling, given that I do espouse the use of talk over the deployment of violence. However, I couldn’t shake a primal reality – all siblings beat the crap out of each other.

This sibling rivalry thing has been around so long the Bible credits the first brothers with starting the whole trend (with less than preferable results). Looking into my own history, there are knockdown battles I had with my poor younger sister who finally developed a Bionic Woman leg kick to neutralize my Olympic half-nelsons. The fighting is just something all parents have to deal with since siblings naturally get jealous of each other because of perceived preferential treatment and get punchy because of the sheer volume of time they spend together in homes and car backseats.

We bemoan our children’s failure to abide by our values of nonviolence. We fret in embarrassment that public displays of discord reflect our own failures. But where would we all be if we didn’t throw our siblings into a few hallway walls?

Experts say that fighting helps children learn to resolve conflicts with peers. Because of the relative safety of battling with a family member who will generally love him no matter what, a kid can develop the right way to settle differences. Another benefit of the rivalry: realizing that the world is contentious and often not fair. Through sibling wars, children accrue a sense that they have to live with some injustices and move on from them to other matters. While we must instruct our children to resolve their differences with words, we should also let them struggle among themselves, just as they will need to do in the big, bad world beyond us. That way, when a viciously insulting boss socks them in the gut, they have a reservoir of sibling-fed feelings to help them choose the right reaction.

Given our many goals for family harmony, it’s worth noting that having a houseful of scrapping kids is rather healthy. It better be, because my three sons are only getting bigger and the fights gradually becoming nastier… and, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear Jacob yelling that baby Ari has him in a headlock.

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