My neighbor here at the beach is a wise woman. A single mother with four kids, she developed strategies to deal with the fights between them. “Let me know when you’ve settled it,” she would say as she walked out of the room. Eventually they did. She had of course set rules about physical and emotional abuse, but within those parameters, she let them alone.
Her second terrific strategy took place at the dinner table. She and the kids sat together to make the family decisions. The five of them would come up with a solution that they all could pretty much live with. The kids developed a sense of fairness and the ability to negotiate, which has served them well.
When people worry about the fights between their kids, they are tempted to intercede and have a say in the outcome. But my research into siblings has taught me that, with some guidance and some limits, kids do better as adults if they learn to settle things between themselves. I also found that kids who are given joint projects—and the dinner-table decisions were joint projects—form better relationships in adulthood. This kind of cooperation lasts a lifetime and the habit of working together turns out to be useful when the parents begin to age and need their children’s help.
When I was a kid, we spent our summers in a cottage on a lake. There was electricity, but no running water. We had a pump, and the ice man delivered great chunks of ice every week or so. We bathed in the lake and used the two-seater outhouse. My mother and our friend managed to cook us three meals a day on a hotplate and large electric roaster.
Michael and I had the responsibility for the dishes. This was complicated. We had to pump the water, heat the kettle on the hotplate, and pour the water into the large tubs, one for washing and one for rinsing. We fought over who got to dry, but that was nothing compared to the fun we had, composing little skits of rebellion over the dishes or making up our own lyrics to show tunes, to let the adults know how hard our job was. With dishtowels appropriately draped, we two performed songs of protest long before the Civil Rights movement.
My brother and I have had our ups and downs, like every other pair of siblings, but the memory of washing and rinsing, drying and singing is a bond that has lasted us a lifetime.