Sibling rivalry: the foreign exchange edition

Before Butter was born, I read a lot about preparing children for a sibling. I read about how to handle conflict between siblings, how to channel competition into cooperation, and how to find family tranquility.

I forgot to do that before our foreign exchange student arrived.

My boys helped prepare her room and drew her pictures to decorate her walls. They helped me shop for groceries she might like. And Peanut, our seven-year-old made a list of places we should take her. All very sweet.

But since she arrived, Butter is completely unimpressed.

Okay, that’s an understatement. He despises her.

When our temporary daughter talks to him, he shouts at her. “Don’t talk to me!”

I remind him that we talk nicely. That if you don’t want to answer, you can say, “I don’t want to talk.” But screaming at our friend “don’t talk to me, stupid Rosí!” is a one-way ticket to alone time.

She is flabbergasted by his rudeness. She has asked him to be nice, and she has told him she doesn’t like yelling. In fact, at one point she told him he couldn’t come in her room. She explained that, “Mommy talks nicely so she can come in my room. Daddy talks nicely so he can come in my room. Peanut talks nicely so he can come in my room. If you want to talk nicely, you can come in my room. But when you yell? You cannot come in my room. Goodbye.”

It didn’t work. He walked out of her room and slammed the door.

I’ve explained to him that he’s my son and I love him. That she’s a guest and we have to talk nicely. That I’m not her mom…I’m his mom.

But he knows that she’s the new baby in the family, taking time and attention from mom.

In her kind attempts to tidy the house, she moves his treasures and puts his shoes in the wrong place.

In her need to understand or clarify or get directions, she is taking from him what he believes is rightfully his.

And she came in full adult form, so he didn’t get his chance to poke and pinch her and test her pain tolerance as an infant.

She interrupts him when he talks, not hearing his thinking pauses in part because she’s unused to the rhythms of a three-year-old.

When he needs something, she often needs something, too. Sometimes she has to wait, and sometimes he has to wait.

She often calls me Mommy.

Worst of all, for him, she often doesn’t understand what he says. She gently tells him, “I don’t understand what you said,” hoping that he’ll repeat himself. Or miraculously become more articulate than his three years will allow.

He bellows, “I said ‘don’t talk to me,’ stupid Rosí!”

¡Ay, dios mío!

As our Dominican guest told me this week, my children are making me an old woman.

Alls well that ends well. I think.

Act I
Interior, Boys’ bedroom. Bedtime.

Peanut notices Butter is happily cuddling a little green bear. The bear he gave his younger brother months ago. The bear he said he was done with and didn’t like. The bear that represents one of only two things he’s ever given Butter to keep.

“Why does he have that? I want it.”

I’m going to spare you the details of the next ten minutes. Suffice it to say it was a ping pong match of screaming versus calm. He wanted it back. I am not going to take a bear from a happy baby. Ill-gotten gains would be a different discussion. But the 5 year old GAVE the bear to the toddler.

Peanut bellowed and writhed for 10 minutes. And he refused to calm down, to lie down, or to stop screaming. I sat next to Butter’s crib, reading a book. (Most nights I nurse the wee one, and put him to bed awake. I leave the room. If he cries I come back, tell him to lie down, fix his blanket, and leave again. After four tries, if he won’t settle, I sit in the rocker and read until he’s asleep. I might actually read a whole book this year.)

I told Peanut I would talk with him when he was prone and quiet. He refused. I had lots of tricks up my sleeve: the other green bear on Peanut’s bed, the idea of taking this green bear back tomorrow, the possibility of a trade for the orange monster Butter has never liked, and the piggy bank just itching for a new bear purchase. I get to use none of my masterful techniques because my child’s stubbornness rivals my own.

He’s actually quite hilarious, and I had to fight not to laugh. First he walked circles around the room for ten minutes while I ignored him. Clearly tired, he finally sat down on his bed. But he refused to lie down.
And he told me so.
And he stared at me, fuming, sitting on his bed, for another ten minutes.

It took half an hour before I told him he could have the bear back in the morning.

Act II
Interior, morning, days later

I wake to the sound of Peanut mimicking Butter’s morning sounds. They banter in toddlerese for a while, then Peanut reads (from memory) and embellishes (from his awesome cache of storybook rhythms) Butter’s favorite book. I go in when Butter gets frustrated because he can’t get out of his bed.

His bed that now contains the forbidden green bear. I casually ask Peanut what they’ve been doing and he tells me, “I brought Butter the bear and told him he can cuddle it for a little while, but that I’d like it back later.”

Fair enough.

Interior, afternoon, days later

I’ve fallen asleep nursing Butter before his nap. Peanut sneaks into the room and softly talks to me. His whispers are a change from moments before, when he was begging for a movie, cursing my name, and threatening not to eat ever again if he couldn’t have pudding for lunch.

P: Do you want me to pull the curtains?
M: Hmmm? What? Oh, that would be nice. Thank you.
P: [he closes the curtains] Is that enough?
M: Yes. That was such a huge help. Thank you.

He gets the magical bear from his bed.

P: Which way will his head be when he gets in bed?
M: That side.
P: I’ll put this in the middle so he sees it no matter which way he sleeps.
M: That is so friendly, P. What a great idea.

What!? Who is this model citizen? This is the kid I met years ago and haven’t seen since he started preschool. This kid standing before me has been missing for two years. Is it possible he’s shaking his Threes and Fours just in time to leave our sphere of influence and enter the terrifyingly unsheltered, unprotected, unsavory world of public school?


Act IV
Interior, bedtime, same day

The boys rush into their bedroom after bath, screeching and laughing. B sees his crib and points. He wants the green bear. P sees me give it to him and seems fine. B holds the bear, kisses the bear, drags the bear around during the bedtime ritual. And as he nurses he bangs me in the face with the mangy little thing. Repeatedly.

Peanut laughs. A lot.

And I’m guessing Butter can keep the bear now. Because he has helped Peanut turn the nauseating little urchin into a partner in crime, used first in a petty war but now as a weapon against the arch-nemesis Mama. Forget rivalries. They’ve moved onto the bigger picture: their lifelong rebellion against the Forces of Rules and Expectations.