My 16-month-old daughter, Harper, is all belly and has dark eyes and enviable dark, thick lashes, and my (almost) four-year-old, Violet, is a blond with golden skin, bright blue eyes, and a trim waist. Of course, they, like all siblings, and all people, are just as different on the inside. They may grow up in the same house with the same parents, but the way that they experience their childhood, adolescent, and teen years will be different, and they will obviously make different choices throughout their lives, value different things at different times, discover different things about themselves and about others. Each of my girls is unique, and in this month of gratitude, I'm going to do my best to remember that and to honor it.
During my maternity leave with Harper, I picked up Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Even though I admit that I didn't make it all the way through this dense book, I did learn that telling my girls that I love them equally can have damaging consequences. It might sound counterintuitive, but the idea is that children need to be loved uniquely and treated not fairly, but according to their need. The danger is that this false sense of equality or fairness can leave them feeling unappreciated, and therefore, less loved. Instead, taking the time with each child privately to tell her specifically how special she is will help temper any feelings of competitiveness with her sister and will give her something that she needs most of all: validation.
There were other tips that the book gave, too, for fostering a positive relationship between siblings and showing each child that you value her just as she is. For example, I learned not to compare one to other, including doing my best to not use "too" or "also" when I'm commenting on a behavior. So instead of saying, "You're cleaning up, too!" I try to make my approval or disapproval specific to the child and to what she is doing (or not doing) and just leave her sister out of the picture. "I see you are cleaning up, Violet. I appreciate your help." I also learned how limiting and stultifying it can be for a child if she is cast into a role, such as "the musician" or "the mathematician." Whether you are just projecting or are trying to motivate either the child being labeled or the one listening, I learned that resisting the urge to label will give my daughters the freedom to explore different interests and to establish their own identities.
I know that at different times I feel more connected to one child than another, and this book taught me that acknowledging any bias I feel will help me ensure that I take measures to not betray that bias, keeping the other child protected. I can also help by not insisting that my girls always get along. Instead, I need to remember to acknowledge any negative feelings one has about the other. Last, and this one has been difficult for me because I go a little crazy with babies, I have to try not to be too demonstrative with one child in front of the other. If I give each daughter the one-on-one attention she craves, I know that I'm not contributing to any feelings of jealousy or self-doubt.
The list of things that I love about my girls is long. I love how Violet giggles to herself when I allow her to do something on her own, like stir the cookie batter or clean off the table. I love how she likes to sing at the top of her lungs and how she shrugs her shoulders and jerks her legs when she dances. I love how she winds her fingers through my hair when I hold her and how she touches my cheek and says, "It's okay, Mommy," when she knows that I'm upset. I love how protective she is of Harper and how, whenever she's around other kids, she makes sure to tell them,"That's my baby sister."
I love how no matter what happens, good, bad, or otherwise, Harper always says, "Uh-oh." I love how when I ask her for a kiss, she juts out her jaw, runs over to me, and touches her chin to mine. I love that she gently pinches my upper arm when I carry her on my hip. And I love that she gives new people what we call the "stranger stare," just watching the person's every move without blinking.
I could go on and on. These are the things my girls need to know--not how much I love them both or how the pair of them make me so happy. Violet and Harper are two individual parts of my family machine, and they need to be treated with the unique care that each one deserves in order to keep things running smoothly, both day to day and for the long term. I know there's no one else in this world like my Violet or my Harper, and it's my job to make sure that they know it, too.