A Sibling Tussle: Empathy and Problem Solving

So. I’ve given you all an intense couple of days. Today we take a break for something more fun. I want to share a humorous exchange that recently took place between my children Sally (age 4) and Bobby (age 1). It involved a tussle over a package of princess gummies and two children who really do care about each other—but aren’t about to give up their property without a fuss.

First, a moment of background. Every time we go to the grocery I let Sally pick out something for herself. The princess gummies had been Sally’s latest choice. I purchased some of the cheap generic gummies for Bobby at the same time. Bobby is not aware of any distinction between the two types of gummies, but Sally is keenly aware of the difference.

This story starts with Bobby spotting Sally’s box of princess gummies out on the table. Bobby  reached into the box and took out a package of princess gummies. He then started chattering gibberish, looking around for someone to open it for him. That’s when Sally spotted him, rushed in, and grabbed the gummie package out of Bobby’s chubby little hands. Not surprisingly, Bobby instantly burst into tears. Sally responded by immediately handing the gummies back.

Sally knows that when we have to take something from Bobby we try to trade him for something else, and while she wasn’t about to let him have a package of her special princess gummies she does value his feelings. She began looking around for Bobby’s box of generic gummies, which she found just out of reach. She pulled up a chair, climbed on it, and got a package for him.

At the same time that Sally was doing this, Bobby reached back inside of Sally’s box of princess gummies to get a second package out to give to her. In other words, both children were aware that the other wanted a gummie package, and both thoughtfully and empathetically sought to locate a package to give to the other.

As Sally climbed off of the chair, Bobby handed her the second package of princess gummies he had gotten out. She took it, and then took the original princess gummies package from his other hand while simultaneously handing him a package of generic gummies. Unfortunately, Bobby didn’t notice that Sally was trying to hand him the package of generic gummies and only registered that Sally had not only taken the package of princess gummies he had gotten out for her, but also the package of princess gummies he had originally gotten for himself.

Bobby burst into tears once again. But this time, having already tried and failed to broker a deal by giving Sally her own package of princess gummies, he defended himself and what he saw as his rightful property the only way he knew how to—he leaned forward to bite whatever he could get his four little teeth on, and ended up with a mouthful of Sally’s dress. At this, Sally started laughing good-naturedly. She picked up the generic gummie package from where it had fallen on the floor and again handed it to Bobby, this time making sure that he could see it.

At this, Bobby immediately stopped crying, calmed down, and took the package of generic gummies. He then started chattering gibberish, again looking around for someone to open it for him. Peace and order were restored and all was right with the world.

I sat watching through the entire exchange and didn’t lift a hand to intervene. I try to let Sally and Bobby work things out on their own when possible, and because I’ve provided guidance and modeling as needed they’re generally pretty good at it (but not always, in case you’re wondering!). I also think this exchange is a testament to children’s natural sense of empathy and to the boundaries I’ve sought to teach my kids; after all, both knew immediately to think of the other’s feelings and look for a way to meet the other’s needs without relinquishing their own claims. Another thing these sorts of moments makes me think about is how hard it must be to be unable to communicate with words. When I take something that is Bobby’s, he generally responds by shrieking. I try to respect that, because I understand that at this point that is his only defense, his only way of protecting his property (save biting, I suppose, and I do try to discourage that).

To be perfectly honest, I think the number one piece of parenting advice I would give is try to see things through the child’s perspective. And with that, I’ll finish by leaving you with this rather pertinent image:

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Alix

    …Oh my god, I want to hug the babies in the pictures so badly right now.

    (I have nothing coherent to say except I want to hug all sad babies. :/ If my nephew weren’t currently in Maryland, he’d be getting the stuffing hugged out of him right now.)

    Okay, I have one cogent thing to say: you have two sweet, thoughtful, and compassionate kids. I also ought to tell you – I directed my sis (my nephew’s mother) to your blog, and you’ve helped her find her own path to positive parenting. It’s working out wonderfully for Sis and the nephew.

  • Sally

    Aww, very sweet. Parenting is hard; these successful moments are treasures!

  • Korou

    That is very certainly pertinent! The whole post. Thank you very much!

  • Mel

    That’s a really awesome family story, Libby Anne. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jackie

    You sure you don’t think it would be quicker to train them instead of teach them? The asset is you wouldn’t have to actually be a good example yourself. It really is exhausting.

    Back to the real world. How wonderful they care about each other. And I think you’ve explained one of the most helpful pieces in parenting – it’s okay for kids to have things they don’t have to share. They should learn to share some things, but precious toys, or food, can be kept safe from destructive siblings or friends. I found my kids were more generous when I respected their belongings and understood what was important to them.

    • Angela

      Actually I think her real mistake was allowing Sally to choose something special for herself to begin with. Giving children choices just confuses them and encourages bickering. And children own nothing. The sooner they realize that the better. *sarcastic eye roll*

      • SirWill

        Speaking from experience, a child who is denied agency over their things is harmed by the experience, not helped.

        When I was a kid, my brother felt he had ownership rights over not only his stuff, but mine. The end result was that the only way I could keep anything of my own was to lock it up tight and keep it secret. If I tried to take my own stuff back, he took out his frustrations with his fists. What I learned was that my feelings didn’t matter, that my wants didn’t matter, and that -I- didn’t matter to him.

        That’s a terrible lesson for a kid to learn, and it would have been far, far worse if my parents were teaching it, rather than having to correct my brother’s overreaching all the damn time.

        He’s grown up now, and become a much better person. But this is the kind of stuff I can’t forget. Forgiving, yes. Forgetting? Nope.

        Now giving kids choices does -not- confuse them. It teaches them skills they will be using later in life. A poor lesson is ‘You own nothing, get used to it.’ a -good- lesson is ‘You can’t have everything you want, so prioritize. If you can’t have that what you want, figure out what you can do to get it later.’ A lot of adults can’t figure this one out, maybe because they never were taught this kind of thing as kids.

        Libby, you’re doing great. The world needs more mothers like you.

      • Angela

        Oh dear. I thought everyone would be able to tell that I was being sarcastic. I was trying to build on Jackie’s quip about it just being easier to train them. The “advice” was so ridiculous I didn’t think it would be taken seriously.

      • SirWill

        heh. Point. Alas, on the internet, you need a sarcasm tag!

        Ah well. All in good fun. Glad you weren’t serious.

      • Jackie

        I got it! But it was all good anyway because we got to hear SirWill’s personal experience, something that helps is be better parents.

      • SirWill

        Glad that helped somebody, at least.

        Real issue is here? There’s no parody of fundamentalism that can’t be mistaken for the real thing. Same thing goes for some of this ‘child rearing’ here. Reason I responded the way I did was because I had heard the same kinds of things said in all seriousness.

        So…yeah. Ugh.

      • The_L1985

        Ah yes. Nathan Poe’s Law.

      • Rosie

        I was just thinking about that this morning. My parents bought into the Dobson “don’t ever let the toddler get his way because then he’ll think he can always get his way” crap. I learned that my feelings were shameful and my needs weren’t real, and that choices and options were something to be terrified of (because I was very likely to pick the wrong one). I did have ownership rights to some extent, but only to the extent that I wouldn’t get upset (or express upset) about the thing being taken away.

  • Scott_In_OH

    I first read “princess gummies” as “priceless gummies.” Made me smile even bigger!

    • Angela

      To a four year old they’re one and the same!

    • Saraquill

      I did the same. ^_^

  • Angela

    I love reading about your parenting techniques. Your blog is one of the ones that nudged me toward implementing positive parenting with my own kids almost a year ago. I’ve read several books and found many great resources online but what I’m really hoping to find is an online forum for parents who practice non-punitive parenting techniques to support and advise each other.

    The thing is that I live in a fairly conservative area and don’t actually know anyone else who parents this way (or has even heard of it for that matter). Anyway, I’ve looked for something like this before but was unsuccessful. Does anyone know if something like this exists?

  • Rosie

    Libby Anne, your positive parenting posts always…hurt…in a way I can’t describe.

    • http://Thechurchproject.me/ Tracey

      Hey Rosie, sorry you are feeling hurt. I’m curious to know if you are taking issue with LA’s parenting technique or if it’s just bringing up some other negativity for you. And feel free to ignore me if its not something you care to elaborate about.

      • Rosie

        I think LA is doing a very good thing. It just hurts me to see it. Maybe it’s the “might have been”. Shit, I’m 40 years old and I don’t understand my feelings as well as her 4-year-old understands hers.

      • Jackie

        Contemplating how well you understand feelings is definitely on the plus side!

  • TLC

    I learned a long time ago about the joy of diversion, and if you take one thing away from a child, you give them something else. Most of the time it works.

    Kudos to you for letting your kids work this out themselves, and teaching them how to do it in the first place.

  • teaisbetterthanthis

    I love this. I love that even a toddler and a preschooler can think “oh, hey, my sibling wants gummies, let me help”. And I hope that they internalize the empathy and self-mediation so that it’s not rocked by the “real world”.

    • Lyric

      I have spent the last week or so wondering when empathy really starts developing.

      I mean, I recently watched my little girl scoot over to her crying brother, pat his head, and say, “Eee? Eee?”

      Okay, granted, patting is pretty indistinguishable from slapping at this point, and she’s been trying to figure out how his hair works for weeks, so she probably had ulterior motives for wanting to touch his head once it was right in front of her. And I am probably reading too much into her behavior to interpret it as, “There is something happening that sounds like sad. How do I fix sad?” But still, she’s seven months old yesterday and she moved toward the crying.

      • trinity91

        I really think we are born with it and things like the Pearl’s parenting “advice” and any other authoritarian parenting method is ultimately meant to get rid of that empathy.

      • Alix

        That said, we’re also born with selfish impulses, and unkind impulses as well. Authoritarianism and tribalism don’t spring up out of nowhere – yes, they have to be taught, but they’re also rooted in the human psyche themselves.

        Parenting, then, at least for decent parents, would involve strengthening and honing a child’s natural empathy and teaching them to avoid the pitfalls of things like an impulse towards hierarchy, towards believing what a member of “your” group says without thought, and towards us-vs.-them thinking. Teaching kids that cruelty isn’t okay, no matter how much they think the other “deserves it”, and that selfish impulses aren’t wrong, but must be tempered by empathy as well.

      • Rose

        A recent study found that rats will free their cage-mates from restrictive containers even when they were not rewarded for it, leading researchers to conclude that the rats were showing empathy toward one another. So, if ratties are born with it, people probably are too, just saying.

      • Conuly

        They’ll do it even when it is to their detriment, such as when releasing a cagemate means they have to share food instead of having it all to themselves.

  • skyblue

    What a wonderful story! It made me smile to read it, and I imagine that years from now, it’ll make a perfect “when you were little” story to tell Sally and Bobby.

    It was particularly nice to read about kids growing up in a loving home, after the last few posts about truly sickening stuff (but thank you for exposing and rebutting them, as the saying goes, sunlight is a great disinfectant).

  • Lunch Meat

    This really, really gives the lie to all of the comments in the last few posts about how if you don’t hit your kids, they never learn how to be respectful and they must run around throwing tantrums and being out of control all the time (which doesn’t even make sense once you realize that expressing anger and not doing exactly what one’s parents want doesn’t have to be a bad thing).

  • luckyducky

    I’ve discovered that my kids (closer in age and older than Libby’s) treat each other the best when I am not part of the interaction… One of my favorite parts of the week is weekend mornings when my SO and I can sleep in. The kids get up at the same time as always and will play together for HOURS without a hint of conflict. I often hide in my room working/listening to them because the spell is broken as soon as they know mom is available to referee (I try my best not to).

    The walk to the bus stop this morning — I sent them ahead because I couldn’t find my keys ended up being about 1/2 a block behind them. They were obviously enjoying goofing around and talking to each other. Usually when I am there, there is a complex negotiation about who is going to hold my hand without the dog leash and whether one has enough room on the sidewalk.

    I regularly question whether I am a *bad* influence and if I need to adjust how I interact with them together (could do better) or figure out how to spend more time with each of them individually (probably should but, ya know, life). I’ve decided the most important part of this is that they do actually know how to get along and care for each other and will when I am not there to do it for them.

    Just like I want any problematic behavior to happen at home (vs. school), I prefer that they work out they conflict and irritation with each other when I am there so I can intervene if necessary and help learn/practice healthy problem-solving.

    So, it often feels like parenting is often long periods of dealing with problems punctuated by occasional periods where it is all just clicking. There is the child who has decided that it is absolutely necessary that he practice his song for the school play all morning vs. the child who finds noise in the morning stressful… the child who fidgets, taps, and talks his way through homework vs. the child who wants crypt-like quiet for homework time… etc., etc.

    • David Kopp

      My boys are only 3 and 4, but sometimes when I start getting pulled in to be the referee I’ll tell them that if they don’t want me to have them play in separate places, they’ll have to figure it out themselves. It usually works wonders.

      • luckyducky

        Oh, I have a couple of responses: “Not wearing stripes today, you have to talk to your sib,” and “If you cannot work out how to share/play together, then it is time to do something else, somewhere else” and “if you can’t figure out how to talk nicely to your sibling, then you need some cooling off time in you room/bed.”

        They are 7 and 8, capable of talking through things — though my 8yo can and does sometimes talk circles around the 7yo, both because older but also just much more verbal. Do they ever get frustrated when I explain that they can’t always count on playmates to have the same skills or expectations about how to work things out but that I still expect them to use their words (I messages), empathize, and remove themselves from the situation if necessary, and they are responsible for what they choose to do/say, regardless of what the other person says/does.

        They pick fights with each other when stressed, not so much bored, so it spiked with the start of school. I still haven’t figured out how best to balance being understanding while not letting it slide (It is okay to be angry/frustrated/irritated. It isn’t okay to take it out on sib/parent).

    • Kate Monster

      I know my siblings and I were always better behaved when we were on our own, but we fought like cats and dogs when our parents were involved. It a way, we were performing for them–we wanted attention more than we wanted revenge against each other. But that wasn’t a conscious choice. When we were fighting we MEANT IT…it just usually seemed to coincide with us having an audience.

  • M.S.

    I see this so often with my twins (although yes, sometimes they result in biting or hitting, unfortunately). Proof that babies are born empathetic and generous; we have to do what we can as parents to keep them that way!!

  • Susie M

    Your children sound darling!!

  • Saraquill

    Do the princess gummies taste better than generic, or is it all in the packaging? I’m fond of the candies myself, so I’m curious.

    • “Rebecca”

      The generics actually taste better, in my experience. :b

    • The_L1985

      Having eaten many different varieties of gummies as a wee one, I can confidently say that unless they’re the “creamy-looking” kind, or have sour dusting on them, all gummies taste the same.

      Some have artificial flavoring in them (which I can’t have for health reasons) and some don’t, but the tastes are too similar for most people to notice a difference.

  • Beth

    Same age as my kids…we go through this exchange often, only my 1 year old doesn’t like to trade, I guess he has a good bs meter.

  • Kellen Connor

    I was about to beg you for just this kind of post. I love you and I love your kids. You give me hope for the next generation. Keep up the amazing work.


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