Archives for posts with tag: siblings

I was reading a book for our book club the other day, about a man who was on trial for murder, and the case the prosecution built to establish the man’s sanity.  The assistant Attorney General asked an expert witness in psychiatry to compare the accused with  someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  The physician asserted that one quality in particular spoke to the man’s sanity: “This is a man who enjoys a good joke.”

“…laughter is always something that is a shared experience. . . .One thing I can tell you in working with hundreds of schizophrenics over my lifetime, is schizophrenics don’t have shared humor with people around them.  Most of the time they are quite humorless.  Once in a , they’ll have their own idiosyncratic humor, laughing with themselves at things that have nothing to do with their environment. But a rather sensitive marker of psychosis is whether people have enough of the same shared reality to not only understand the facts of one’s reality, but the subtle and social meaning and significance that is irony.”1

I had to contemplate that for a while, especially as it pertains to raising children and family dynamics.  What dawned on me was the importance of shared humor in family life: those little moments of silliness that others might not think funny at all, because (we’ll all said it) you had to be there.  But that’s just the thing: in a family, you were there when the joke first came into being.  The off-the-wall comment that becomes an anecdote told over and over again; the games we make up at the dinner table, like the time our family composed native American names for each other: “Runs Like a Grandmother;” “Hates to Lose Candyland,”  “Counts on her Fingers,” and (although my husband is loathe to admit it) “Sleeps While He’s Driving;” the odd gesture that hits everyone’s funny bone and is replayed endlessly for years later;  secret languages brothers and sisters make up to communicate with one another — “patchouli” meant yes, “patchouka” meant no, “bar-bar” meant something really, really sad or bad; and something multisyllabic and complicated that we tragically no longer can remember meant. . .the withering of a pine tree.  (“The withering of a pine tree” in a four-word language? Ah, but yes! With that one word, this developing but nevertheless four-word language implied promise! It was destined to be far superior to English, with its limited description of the stresses undergone by conifers.) Although it isn’t funny, I still remember with maternal poignance the moment my daughter, age 8, learned that friend in her ballet class was getting promoted to the intermediate level.  I told her quietly as she sat in the backseat of the car, and there was utter silence for thirty seconds.  When I turned to look at her, her big brown eyes were filled with tears. “Bar-bar,” she whispered.

Every night when our two had finished dinner and weren’t allowed to be excused while their parents were still eating, they would ask if they could put on a play for us to make the waiting less agonizing.  The large pocket doors would be slid shut between the dining room and the family room, and we would hear endless whispering and giggling from the next room as award-worthy theatrical productions were plotted and staged. Finally the pocket doors were slid back (Dad had to assist with that) and the play would begin.Invariably the entire performance would dissolve into shrieks of laughter shared by youngsters and adults alike. No two plays were alike, but they were all equally ridiculous.  

As the kids got older and we would travel together, we would hear them in the adjoining hotel bedroom, laughing uproariously at some silliness or another.  Is there anything more delightful than hearing your children make each other laugh hysterically?  I often imagine how God must feel when He sees us enjoying each other in that regard — and how He must grieve when we refuse to.

If shared humor is a sign of sanity, then surely shared humor in a family is the foundation of mental health for life.  Pray to have it in your family, and when you catch a glimpse of it, or hear those giggles in the next room, cherish it as the antidote to much of the world’s psychosis.

As I said before, I never take credit for the fact that our two children were such good friends in those early years. I mostly consider it a happy accident, and one that had little to do with us as parents. But when a parent asks me if I can think of anything that might have encouraged that delightful state of affairs, I do remember certain elements of our household, and I wonder if perhaps some decisions we made in well-intentioned ignorance may actually have contributed positively.

It may all go back to the blue table.

This was a table I came across in a childrens’ store.  It was the perfect dimensions and height for two children to sit side-by-side and do all kinds of arts, crafts, and later, even homework.  It was very sturdy, although not very appealing from an interior design standpoint: a bright blue plastic embedded with fibers almost like fiber glass, and the legs were L-shaped with each side of the “L” about 3 inches deep, like two sides of a square, and those legs wrapped the corners of the table, giving it real stability. We placed it in the family room where an end-table would be at the end of the two sofas turned at a 90 degree angle, and had two plastic chairs there.  On the table was all kinds of craft supplies: drawing paper, construction paper, crayons, pencils, scissors, paste, tape, glue, always out.  At least for preschoolers, I don’t think there’s much more enticing than art supplies.  Even if you’re not “crafty,” (I’m not) watching TV shows where they cut and paste is sort of magical.  The sounds! The rrr-rrr-rrr sound that scissors make when they cut construction paper.  The sound of folding or taping or gluing paper. Something about it is soothing, like chicken noodle soup on a rainy day.  So the blue table was just. . .there.  Always available, and our two kids used it for hours on end.

At birthday parties, we could put our two and my godchildren at it.  In the summer we would move it outside when the kids were feeling entrepreneurial. It’s funny that something so seemingly random like the purchase of that blue table would have ended up affecting the culture in our house for years. If so much depended on a red wheelbarrow for William Carlos Williams, so much in our house depended on the blue table.


And from there, so many habits were established.  So that creating cool stuff became “what we do together.”


So that when we traveled, any table became the place for creativity.


And any place became the place for a brother and sister to find ways to amuse themselves.


Is there a “blue table” in your family’s life?  Something that has set the tone for positive, constructive enjoyment?

Perhaps there’s one in your future: what might it be, and how can you go about finding it?

I don’t want to discourage parents whose children don’t seem naturally to get along.  That day did arrive for ours — I think it was when our children reached middle school.  But until then, they were  great friends and had hours of hilarity together for years.  It was always a mystery to me why this was so, and I was very grateful, but I never felt like I could take credit.  Often, however, I would ponder it, and analyze why it might be. My brother and I, who were about three years apart, played happily in preschool, but then competed and fought like France and Germany (I was France, he Germany) from the elementary years on. My husband and his sister, five years apart, were too separated by age to have much interaction: they were more like England and Greece.  But our two were delighted with each others’ company, their four-year age difference notwithstanding — so much that for years they didn’t have friends over as often as they might.  They had wonderful built-in playmates in each other.

One thing my husband and I did as parents was to try to inspire in our son’s imagination what it might feel like to be the younger, just to encourage him to be empathetic and gentle with his sister.  For nearly four years he had been an only child, doted upon and showered with attention, affirmation and encouragement like a crown prince by his subjects.  How could we make that up to his poor sister, who always had to share our attention with a precocious boy four years her senior?  I filled Andrew’s head with the concept that this clumsy girl baby must surely feel entirely inadequate next to her fluent, coordinated, adept, confident older brother.  Consequently, in his attempts to win our approval or to be classified as a Good Older Brother, he would exclaim, “Sidney! what you are doing right now? putting ravioli on your head? I have never done that!” “Sidney! You are really good at  dancing! I can’t dance at all!” (“nor do I want to!” — naw, he didn’t say that.  He probably just thought it.)

It wasn’t until years later, watching home videos, that I was shocked to see all of us catering to a pudgy little female tyrant, careening around commanding, “NO TALK, ANDREW! NO TALK!” and if he dared to violate her wishes, backhanding him good! In my worry about the “second child syndrome,” I caved to her every shriek, while long-suffering Andrew quietly acquiesced to whatever the little despot demanded.  This was a completely different version of reality from the one I carried in my mind. Holy moly: Sidney wasn’t to be pitied; she ruled the roost.

But she adored her big brother.  He was her beau ideale. She tried to do everything he did.  One day after a long session of father-son baseball during a family vacation, we were all back in our hotel room sprawling on the floor, when Sidney came in from the adjoining bedroom, baseball cap askew on her head, ball the size of a grapefruit in her right baby hand, bat in the other hand, toddling over to us as if to say, “Play baseball with me!” It was one of those rare moments that shines in all our memories.

As time went on and she gained verbal skills and humor, the sounds of giggles wafted through the house like perfume for the ears.  “How pleasant it is when brothers live in harmony!” Andrew would make funny things for his little sister, such as a large construction paper book entitled “PREWEO EWO.” It was nonsensical to us, but he “read” it to her quite often with great dramatic inflection, as we tried to muffle our amusement. And then there was the little cross of wood he nailed together, and wrote in pencil, “This is the cross of Jesus.”  On the other side, he nailed a elongated diamond, centered on the cross, which made a shape somewhat like a star and scrawled, also in pencil, “This is the star of Jesus.” He was adamant that he made it for Sidney: I guess he had resolved that the job of teaching her theology fell to him.  And on Sidney’s part, she was never offered a piece of candy anywhere — at ballet, at the doctor, at a birthday party — that she didn’t ask for one to take home for her brother.  And as she has been doing with everyone her entire life, she made her brother laugh. Real belly laughter, with dimples to match, for hours on end.

The idyllic years lasted longer than any parent has the right to hope, but they did fade.  The bickering started and seemed to make up in its intensity for the entire decade of bliss that had gone before. Like  a storm cloud that passes over and shrouds any memory of spring, we survived those years, and the cloud passed.

Sometimes it seems that just when parents remark that things are most sublime, a shift comes and fills you with despair. And just when you despair of ever regaining the joy from an earlier time, the scene changes, the characters learn and evolve, and the sun comes back out from behind the clouds.  As we used to remind the child who was bereft when he was losing at CandyLand, “Zings can change!” Take a few deep breaths and wait a bit. You don’t know but what Queen Frostine isn’t the next card in the deck.

How have you dealt with sibling relations in your family?  What has worked well, and what hasn’t?

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