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.