Q: I have a 9-year-old son who has been in a less pressured mainstream school, with tutors throughout the years to help him stay on grade level. His siblings know that he is in a different school than they are in, but they based this more on his speech impediment than anything else. He often did his homework in school with his tutors, so his siblings were not so aware of his low level of academic ability. Now, when my husband and I do school and homework with him, his siblings see how he is clearly behind for a boy his age. The children have different reactions to this. His older sisters are quite compassionate about it. However, the boys who are somewhat older than he have begun to tease him and look down on him, in general. When my husband and I criticize this behavior, we get responses such as “He starts with us enough — why don’t you give HIM mussar?”
I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope — trying to be sensitive to my 9-year-old son, yet seeing what this son does to contribute to issues of fighting with his brothers. He can tease his brothers for not being good at sports, or not doing well at certain board games. My 9-year-old is good at sports, but he doesn’t have to put down his brothers and say he’s better. We’ve been through this a number of times, but he just goes back to the same behavior. Any ideas?
A: Family members being at home together for the majority of the day can reveal certain issues that may not be so apparent in a person’s normative daily schedule. It’s a blessing that your son’s learning deficiencies were not so evident to siblings until now. In general, when a child finds another’s vulnerability, they may harp on it to gain “ leverage” in sibling quarrels. If it was not in the area of learning, another weak point might have been focused upon.
A general sibling discussion can be helpful in mediating issues and hearing out children’s complaints about one another. Issues of who goes to whose room, who touches another’s toys “without permission” are common areas of sibling disputes. Guidelines for how to operate in one’s home are not perfect, but can give structure in a day whose structure often ends after the home school schedule ends. Problem-solving the actual sibling behavior patterns can focus on ways to break destructive communication responses amongst family members. One can say: “When he does this, what are other ways that you can respond? … If I see you holding yourself back and doing xxx instead, you’ll get yyy, as a reward for your efforts.” It is essential to speak to your sons individually, and focus on their individual natures, seeing what might motivate them to be kinder to each other. Sometimes having a parent just listen to their vantage point and why they feel the way that they do towards their brother can be the beginning of a solution. Being validated is an excellent springboard to being open to new and novel ideas.
Another way to help create “group momentum” is by creating a group goal amongst siblings. As no fight really has a beginning or end — “He stuck his tongue at me two weeks ago — I’m just getting back at him,” it’s better to focus on a way to improve general group behavior. Focusing on “who started” is also often an unrealistic endeavor. Focusing on a desired group goal — such as acquiring a greatly desired item by all siblings from their parents — can be a successful motivating technique. Siblings reminding each other of the goal can stop destructive communication patterns. Less blame is automatically shifted towards one another, as the focus is now on their shared desired positive outcome.
Hatzlachah rabbah on this most essential endeavor!