Constant bickering about nothing at all

Siblinghood, fairness, and wanting what's wanted

My kids like to bicker constantly about a series of asinine topics including who got to hit the pause button on the episode of “Wild Kratts,” which glass of water had more ice cubes, and who changed out of their pajamas first. The bickering revolves primarily around two things—whether something was perceived to be fair, and fighting for my attention (often at the same time). Both result in a lot of whining and are futile lines of argument; in the last month, we’ve found no consistently effective way to deal with the myriad of emotions, other than to stick the kids in the ocean for long periods of time, so they are more preoccupied by the waves than by each other.

Ada is committed to her perception of fairness with a scrupulous level of OCD (as many children are). She mentally tallies every piece of pineapple that’s been doled out, counts the sprinkles on her cupcake versus Julian’s, eyes the number of sips he has taken from the shared bottle of lemonade, to ensure it is exactly the same as her share, as he is her primary competitor. Her perception of fairness is entirely relative to her brother, and ensuring things are are equal rather than actually fair. In her mind, this means that she should get everything he does, plus extra, because she is older. She asserts this point of view often, like when we’re handing out M&Ms— “he gets three because he’s three and I get six because i’m almost six.”


The other morning she woke up weeping, just before 6 a.m. We heard her crying and ignored her until it got so loud it seemed like she might have hurt herself. “Julian’s class got a memory book and mine didn’t. Why? Why? WHY?,” she moaned. “Did you even check the mailbox? Did my teacher mail one? It’s just so unfairrrrrrr,” she wailed, in response to the 5 page laminated “book” of highly pixelated images that Julian’s preschool teachers had put together for the end of the year and she had never otherwise mentioned up until this point.

Because Julian is three, and somewhat predictably fails to to meet her expectations of fairness by reasserting what is rightfully his instead of acquiescing, the situation escalates quickly. “It’s mine,” he replied, rather reasonably. This is unbearable to her, so she often replies by shouting her worst known five-year-old insult: YOU ARE THE RUDEST BOY IN THE WORLD, which, despite being ridiculous, is effective in sending him into tears. Commence argument.

The second version of bickering is the constant sparring for my attention. And it is constant. Both must sit next to be at dinner. Both had to sit next to me on the plane (Thank god for TV). Both want me to get them water in the same exact cup. Ada finds it particularly unbearable that I do anything solo with Julian, including help him use the bathroom, and wants to be “helped” by me in the same way. The key to the insanity is that the other kid only wants the thing—anything—at the same moment the other one does.

Drawing and painting is a primary battleground. Ada wants my attention while she paints or draws, often to google the details of subjects she is drawing. The other day she listened to a series of audiobooks on Epic! about The Titanic, then proceeded to ask me to look up and describe the contents of every room on the ship. Simultaneously, Julian just wanted me to actually paint his paintings for him. The painting he wants is the same painting (of poisonous mushrooms next to one large piece of rainbow taffy) again and again (WTF?!) which he describes non-stop with a level of increasing volume. I repeatedly get his vision wrong, while Ada frustratedly yells about how I haven’t yet explained what’s in the engine room of the Titanic, and soon everyone is screaming, nobody is painting, and we are all at level 10 chaos.

I assume that much of this is a product of my kids’ ages, much of this is being siblings, and some of this is spending over 500 days together as a nuclear family in small spaces partially losing our minds over the chronic ambiguity, worry, and stress about the future. As described in this piece by my friend Jess Grose in the NYTimes, sibling rivalry also serves a purpose:

While most siblings aren’t fighting for actual scraps, psychologically, sibling rivalry serves a developmental purpose: It helps children figure out what is unique and special about themselves, otherwise known as “differentiation.” Children want to be seen as the most special by their parents, so they’re “always going to push for preferential treatment,” over their siblings, Vivona said. But they may also shape their interests and personalities around their siblings’ skills and desires.

Last Friday, on our second to last day in Kauai, we went to Hanalei Bay, the breathtaking bay at the foot of the Napali Coast. We spent the day jumping gentle waves, pulling the kids around on boogie boards, and eating a Sugarloaf—the queen of all pineapples—on the beach, the most activity we could muster after a week (year and a half??) of intensive parenting-working-COVID stress. Beach schlepping, because it involves salty, sticky water, sand, sweat, sunscreen, and a reasonable amount of gear is always more laborious than you imagine, so it was to my surprise, that both kids helped schlep without complaint, and after we got home, that Ada not only ran a bath, but shampoo’ed herself and her brother, then got them both into pajamas, all before 6:30.

After pausing for a moment to process my incredulity at the bedtime routine that never, ever, happens by itself, I resisted questioning whether something suspicious was going on and decided instead to heap on the praise, one of the points of advice given to combat sibling fighting. “Thanks so much for helping with the bath and pjs, Ada,” I said. “Mama is proud of you.” To which she just looked at me and said, “Why do you call yourself mama? That’s really kind of weird.”

Recommendations for the kids:

Recommendations for the grown-ups:

  • Read: Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, You’re So Exhausted, on the many invisible ways this pandemic is so, so exhausting, and the fatigue of facing the resurgence of the delta variant.

  • Read: I Need to Stop Scrolling, Charlie Warzel’s latest newsletter on the diminishing returns of consuming constant COVID news at a particular moment that’s reminiscent of March/April 2020 in terms of uncertainty and high baseline anxiety.

  • Eating: On top of that baseline anxiety, we moved back to Brooklyn….yesterday. Thank god for…vaccine mandates for restaurants because I’ve been waiting for NYC food for 1.5 years. Excited about: Indian food at Dhamaka, getting groceries at Sahadis and Kalustyans, eating something very spicy at Thai Diner, getting a biscuit at Poppy’s, trying Birria LES, reuniting with Winson Bakery, pastries + sourdough at Mel + Winner, and better coffee than I’ve had in a long time almost anywhere. Where else are you excited about eating these days?

  • Sock self-care: If you need to self-soothe with an indulgent sock purchase, then Bonne Maison socks, made in France, are consistently the best designs/colors, extremely durable, and feel very luxurious on your feet. For one birthday Jacob got me 5 pairs of these and it’s a top gift.

  • Ceramics: These incredible ceramics by Larissa Warren, who combines clays and colors to create incredible designs that look like cross-sections of planets using a colored clay process I just learned about called nerikomi.

  • Read: The Veggie Newsletter, a new newsletter from Tejal Rao + NYT Cooking focused on your favorite vegetables.

That’s it for this week! Back to recovering from jetlag and learning to be an urban citizen again.

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