It may be natural for kids to fight while they’re growing up. But it’s only healthy if they learn to do it right.

At 16, I was convinced I knew it all, and I certainly had more worldly knowledge than my older sister. After all, she was a mere 22 months ahead of me. We worked at the same grocery store — a franchise chain in the Midwest — and she probably doesn’t know this, even today, but I sought a job as a cashier just like her because in some way I wanted to be her. Although I couldn’t quite get it right.

That’s how we both wound up on registers in the same day, me on the express lane and her on a regular lane. I was the one with the black eye.

All day, customers, especially older ladies, had been ladling out sympathy, and all day, I had eaten it up. When they asked how I had gotten the black eye, I would turn with a flourish in my Kelly green smock and point the accusing finger at my sister, methodically scanning groceries and visiting with her line of shoppers as they unloaded cans, produce, and meat on the register belt. My finger shook dramatically as I waited for the sharp intake of breath, for the shock, and the inevitable pity I seemed to need.


What I didn’t tell those well-meaning , clucking ladies, so outraged at my condition, was before my sister planted her fist right underneath my eyeball, I had hurled a telephone (one of those old-timey jobs with a bit of heft behind it – the kind that clanged a satisfying bell when dropped, or thrown), a bottle of cleaner (almost full), and a handful of change. All of these I had thrown with whip-like force, into the poor, enraged face of my older sister. To be fair, she had blown almost all the twenty dollars my mom had left for us to split when she flew to some sunny country in South America, leaving me about three dollars to spend on cigarettes, soda, and chips…but still.

Fast forward several decades. My older sister is married with kids, I have three of my own; two of whom live with me and my fiancé. In one corner, it’s quiet, too quiet. Where before my sister and I would rage at each other, there is nothing now but civility. At least our prior fury meant we had cared enough to become embroiled and tangled up. Now, texts and calls are not returned, milestones are missed, family gatherings remain mysterious days where the thought looms that something could go wrong. So we try too hard to be nice, and that feels all wrong, too. I can honestly say, I forgot how to sister.


In the other corner are my own children, a boy of 17, a girl of 15. Both equally fiery, outspoken, outgoing, witty little fighters. Tirades rage over our heads as we sit in bed, as we snuggle on the sofa, as we roost outside on the porch steps, appreciating a new morning inevitably broken apart with yelling and outrage.

These children create a vortex of violence on each other some would say is just sibling rivalry. I am inclined to disagree, because at the root of these scrappy sessions, there is much more. I dread one day knowing I had a large part in grooming their inevitable stormy dynamic.

Behind the outbreaks, there remains the pleading of one adolescent heart to another, “Please, accept me, agree with me, support me. Tell me I’m okay without making one change to myself. I feel different. So make me believe I’m not a freak.”

I know this as a mother and a sister, and when my two fight, I listen, heartbroken. Because I also know if people don’t learn how to fight with each other, any relationship is doomed. I have a secret I’ll gladly share, without pride, or posturing, or any of that bullshit the injured use as shields. I lost my sister. In part due to sibling rivalry, because we had never learned healthy boundaries when duking it out. Hurt is hurt. Whether it’s a shove, a punch, a damaging word, these actions still harm. Whether a parent, lover, friend, or sibling. These are the fears that surface when my own children go at it.


My older sister and I were destined to be night and day. She, with the wavy blond hair and clear, intelligent eyes, me, with thick, dark hair and manic hazel eyes. She was stronger, better with money  and math, and the best drawer of trees I had ever seen. When we played Barbies, I would change the outfits and curl hair, and she took over the interior design, often making couches out of fabric and scraps of cardboard. A superior bike rider, I jogged with my bike beside hers, loping to keep up, and when we met with other kids near the park, I would pretend I was breathless from riding so hard that I just had to stop and walk. She never divulged the truth, I was afraid to learn how to ride.

We struggled to get along, strove to hurt each other, in all ways, and so it went for years. Our pattern had been established, we treated each other like we each hated the other most of the time. Some of the most painful words she has ever heard, I’m sure, have come from me. And I can say the same. Although blades of the deepest pain, pain limned in regret and fear, has come from our silence.

There are many things I want my children to hear as they holler at each other, as my partner and I separate them, frozen sulky faces and rigid body language announcing their displeasure. It is not about finishing the fight, having the last word; it is not a race to see who can be the quickest at unraveling the special fabric only siblings share. It is about not devastating each other, not searching for the deepest and most clever way to slice, not about spitting out a string of vitriol in the midst of white hot anger, words with a force to echo well into adulthood, words that can never be unheard.

I don’t think they hear me, my spirited ones as they claw at sibling skin and scream inches from their siblings’ face. They are young, heated, charged with strange new hormones controlling them most of the time. And even when they were toddlers scrabbling over a toy, it wasn’t hormones fueling their indignant little bodies, it was propriety; the sense of outrage, possession. In teens, it is all of those elements too, but strangely morphed from tangible possessions to intangible feelings. It is still about justice, belonging, acceptance, and the need to feel love, whether that thirst is slaked through a stuffed animal returning to chubby, grasping hands, or reassurance is rewarded from taking a risk and confiding in an adolescent sibling.


I want to tell them as they fight, that I am fearful they will say too much, or not enough. I plead with them to shut their mouths as my mind whirls into the future, fearful of witnessing an estranged relationship, wooden feelings and hypersensitivity. I want to impart to them even if they think they don’t, they need each other now, and will need each other in the future. In ways they won’t understand.

I want to tell them it’s lonely rehashing memories of blueberry picking, roller skating, and raising guinea pigs by yourself when you should be chuckling at these memories and shaking your heads in tandem as you sip coffee in your grown up sister’s kitchen. You should do all this, somehow older, and knowing things you had no clue of before, that in the end, sibling relationships are special because they are rag-tag, and tumultuous, but if you do it right, and you don’t wound each other too badly, you can recover and watch your siblinghood blossom into a lifelong friendship. I want to tell them that such a bridge exists and they can cross it together, if they don’t burn it down.

So I will strive to teach my children how to fight, and I will advocate that even the youngest mothers should intervene to teach their children limits. I will maintain eye contact as I address my son and daughter and speak of my own regrets of losing my sister. And I will tell them of hope and family, too, of the bonds that should be the mightiest if you nurture them that way. I will continue to think of my sister more often than she knows, with a poignant, unique pain she, too might recognize, because I miss her every day.


Original article appeared at The Good Men Project. Reprinted with permission.

Photo: Flickr/Sharon Mollerus

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