Stepping aside to let siblings build their relationship

Friday, July 27, 2018 9:03 PM

The thought comes to me like a message from a burning bush, from someplace beyond my mind’s usual mundane chatter.

Col is in Washington, D.C., with his grandma. Rose is inside reading Harry Potter. And I am plucking cabbage worms off brassica plants, contemplating how peaceful it has been since the all-day meal special of sibling bickering has fallen off the menu. And then the thought that stills me is this: I am not responsible for my children’s relationship.

Of course, I want my children to be best friends. In my fantasies, the two of them are allies, bolstered by a two-lane flow of support, compassion, collaboration and cooperation. When the world is confusing and painful, I want them, as fellow participants in the social and genetic experiment of our family, to turn to each other. Though really, I’d settle for them just being able to squeeze onto the couch without anyone throwing elbows.

Partially, I long for this because it would bestow harmony upon our home, but also, I’ve been shackled to a story about what’s good, right and best. Siblings should protect each other! They should be confidantes! If Dan and I model kindness, it should trickle down! But truthfully, when I am attached to one particular outcome, then I lose choice in how to respond because I become the proverbial hammer searching desperately for a nail, missing the truth of what is.

Sibling relationships are a wild and mysterious thing. Something deep and old and unknowable is working itself out while it looks like Col and Rose are simply arguing over who gets the first shower after camping. My squirrely mind wants to control, fix and steer. It wants to wave my red flag when I hear Col charging Rose $3 to claim her own lost earrings that he found. But who am I to engineer their path? They get to snap the pieces of their relationship puzzle together. If the pieces don’t fit, they can rotate or reconfigure them, sand them down, trade them out.

As a leader in this family, I have the responsibility to model compassionate expression, to offer support and to care for everyone’s needs without directing the outcome. It’s liberating to drop this task – the job of making sure my kids are friends – from the long list of what’s required to run a household.

Col returns from D.C., and I try out this new stance, repeating it frequently to counteract the old, worn neural pathways of my mind that suggest we’re all doomed because Col and Rose aren’t magnetized to each other.

And yet, strangely, they are. Their elbow game on the couch is a source of breathless laughter. Col wants to play soccer in the street, but only if his sister joins. Somehow, our house does seem more peaceful, but not because my wanting it made it so; it’s that my mind is more peaceful because there’s less wanting. The despair I’ve felt about the kids not relating as I’d wish leads me to try to control external circumstances, rather than learn to tolerate that which I can’t control.

Also, because I’ve let my mental guard dog of sibling disputes off its chain, I’m less likely to micro-analyze Col and Rose’s interactions, looking for who left fingerprints of guilt on the surface of their last conflict. This means I get to see them more clearly.

Miki Kashtan, founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, suggests we turn the channel from the “boring movie of our mind,” the one that predictably features the repetitive script of our fears and biases. “It’s much more interesting to see the reality of what’s actually going on,” Kashtan says.

The reality is this: Col wins three consecutive games of chess then offers strategic advice to Rose, which she declines. They jump on the neighbor’s trampoline; they return for snacks. Rose makes Col toast and suggests that he say “thank you.” He doesn’t show gratitude to her satisfaction. She sighs, sings a few bars from the musical “Grease” and requests that Col sing Danny’s part while she takes Sandy’s.

I observe it all without commentary, without making evaluations on my friendship-o-meter, nor do I grasp to this moment, sweet as their giggly singing is. Surely, there is a sibling throw-down in their future. And just as likely, there will be the inexplicable magic of a brother and sister crooning along to a ’70s musical in a relationship of their making, the ending not yet written.

Rachel Turiel teaches nonviolent communication to groups and individuals. Contact her at or check out her blog 6512andgrowing.