Our baby, Eve, is 8 weeks old today and our three-year-old, Zoe, has not said a single unkind thing to or about Eve in all that time. I had high hopes for Zoe’s relationship with her sister, but had not dared dream it could be this good.
To every parent that is thinking, “You’re so lucky,” stop for a moment. Bear with me. Love can and should be fostered. You can do it in your family.
People assume that Zoe’s warm feelings towards Eve are due to Zoe’s natural disposition. This is true, but an incomplete truth that ignores our role as parents. All children have an innate desire to love others, siblings included. I didn’t always believe this, but the first time I brought Eve to pick up Zoe from preschool I was so swarmed by little awestruck children that I couldn’t make it out the door. Their faces soften and light up when they see babies. Not all children are like this because not all feel secure and loved. In these cases, babies become a serious threat, stretching the already limited attention of parents.
Our role as parents is basically to not interfere with the loving impulses of our children. There are many specific ways we can do that. Here you can read about how we prepared Zoe for Eve’s arrival. Below are some current rules I apply to myself to nurture this bond between siblings:
1. NO ANGER – Impossible, right? I don’t mean I never feel angry, simply that I never allow myself to wallow or express that anger at my kids. This is not easy or natural for me. Ask my husband about my temper. But it is necessary. If I’m going to explode, I turn on the TV for a minute to gather myself. Whatever it takes. I actually yelled at Zoe two or three times in her life and those experiences were horrible enough for both of us that I am absolutely willing to do whatever it takes to avoid repeating those mistakes.
I never indulge anger but ESPECIALLY not when it comes to Zoe interacting with the baby. Even if Zoe jumps too close to the baby. Even if she makes the baby cry. Even if she grabs something from the baby or hurts her. For Zoe this would be unintentional, but even if it were intentional, I would not get angry. I ALWAYS correct these behaviors. You have to. But if you do it with anger you are teaching your child A) she is bad, B) she is not allowed to make mistakes and C) the baby is more important that she is. Your child will then blame the baby for your anger instead of taking responsibility for her actions. She may even start intentionally harming the baby to get your attention.
How do you teach without anger? When Zoe screams and wakes up the baby, I take Zoe into her room and sit her on her bed until she is able to tell me, “I woke up Eve because I was screaming.” She knows it’s wrong and already feels bad about it. You’ll have to figure out what consequences work, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot by imposing them with anger.
2. NO FEAR – I’m not afraid my kids will hate each other and I wasn’t afraid before Eve was born either. I’m confident that they are good people and with the proper guidance, they will figure it out. Fear naturally leads to anger.
I even joke with Zoe sometimes that I love Eve more than I love her. Before Eve was born I used to joke with Zoe that I only a tiiiiiny bit and hold up my fingers close together to illustrate. Zoe would laugh and say, “No Mom, you love me SO much!” And stretch her hands high into the air to show me. A couple weeks after Eve was born I told Zoe that I love her a tiny bit *holding my fingers close together* and I love Eve a tiny bit more *holding my fingers slightly further* and Daddy a tiny bit more *holding my fingers yet slightly further.* Zoe thought this was hysterical because she is so confident in my love for her. She laughed and said, “No Mommy, you love me SO much and Eve SO much and Daddy SO much,” holding up her hands as high as they could reach.
There’s a kid that understands the nature of love. It multiplies. Find strength in that.
3. ALLOW OLDER CHILDREN TO PARTICIPATE – This is very inconvenient. Do it anyway. Your children’s relationship with one another is more important that your momentary convenience. Zoe feeds Eve her vitamin D. I pump bottles so Zoe can feed Eve. Zoe holds and kisses her all the time. Sometimes when I am stuck at the stove and the baby starts crying, I’ll even ask Zoe if she would mind helping the baby. I’m very casual about this and NEVER ask twice, but so far Zoe has even been willing to turn off her favorite TV show to go comfort her baby sister. From Eve’s perspective this probably does more harm than good, but how else does anyone learn? It builds Zoe’s confidence and a couple of times she has successfully stuck a pacifier in Eve’s mouth.
4. MAKE TIME FOR OLDER CHILDREN, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT IS INCONVENIENT FOR YOU AND THE BABY – My husband and I worked out a schedule where I can do Zoe’s bedtime every night while he takes care of Eve. This is her sacred time with Mommy that nothing will interrupt. In addition to that, I pay close attention to Zoe’s moods and when she really needs it, I spend time with her at the expense of the baby. She will live.
The closest Zoe has ever come to unkindness was at 6 weeks when Eve started crying. Zoe said, “Take care of ME, not EVE!” She was desperate and I immediately said, “Okay,” scooped Zoe up and rocked her while she snuggled up on my chest. Then I said to her, “Do you hear that?”
“Yes. What is she doing?”
“Yes. And who am I with?”
Zoe broke into a huge grin. “Me!”
“Yes. That’s because I love you.”
The entire thing took five minutes, at which point I went and got Eve. I promise you, Zoe does not think she is more important than the baby. This gives Zoe the assurance that when she really needs me, I will be there. More often, however, I simply bring Zoe with me when comforting the baby.
5. DON’T FORCE SHARING – This is not much of an issue yet since Eve can’t hold anything, but we respect ownership in our house. That means all of the toys people have given Eve? They’re sitting in the girls’ room, untouched. Zoe knows these are for Eve, not her. Imagine how many fights this will prevent because Zoe already knows she cannot get away with taking things just because she’s older and capable.
I’ve never forced Zoe to share with anyone and as a result she is the most generous three-year-old I’ve ever met. She comes home from school with paintings for Eve, stickers for Eve. Anything she gets, she wants one for her sister. She decorated a pumpkin for Eve and is already saving half her Halloween candy for “when Eve gets teeth.” The other day she even had me cut a temporary tattoo in half so that she could have the frog’s head and Eve could have the frog’s feet.
I don’t have any illusions that raising multiple children will always be this easy, but it will always be simple. It’s possible. If you don’t believe me, come over to my house and see for yourself.
By the way, Eve’s first smile was at her big sister, Zoe.