Many years ago, when my wife and I were new parents, we went to visit a couple that had two sons that were a bit older than ours. After a brief introduction to their boys, they took them to their play area in an adjacent room, so that we could talk without being interrupted. Well, it was not long after they closed the playroom door that these boys started going after each other. It sounded a bit like an Ultimate Fighting Championship cage match. You could hear one son scream, “he’s hitting me” and then lots of crying. Frankly, all that was missing from the scene was the famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer exclaiming his signature proclamation, “Let’s get ready to rumble” and the sounding of a bell to designate the start of each round.
Oddly, while this commotion was going on, the couple continued the conversation as if nothing wrong was going on in the playroom. It was a bit surreal, like being in an earthquake, with debris falling all around you, yet no one was running for shelter. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about parenting at the time but the whole situation seemed very peculiar to me. Frankly, when this kind of thing happens, I would generally expect a one of the parents to excuse themselves to get their sons under control. But, they sat there totally unconcerned.
In any case, a few weeks later, we paid another visit to the home and it was like the movie “Ground Hog Day.” We came in and sat down and their children were taken to the playroom and, again, their children started going at each other. And, again, the parents acted as if nothing was going on.
In fact, on a few occasions outside of their home, there were times when I would be talking with the father and his sons would be attacking each other. I certainly never doubted that he loved his boys but he seemed to take a “no blood, no foul” approach to dealing with conflicts between them. To be honest, at times, I was tempted to step in and say something, but as the “junior” dad, I didn’t feel like I had the authority to do so. Nonetheless, this father’s behavior made a significant impression on me. It caused me to vow to never let my boys treat each other this way, in private or in public. But, observing this father’s behavior, also made me wonder why a dad would essentially turn a blind eye to sibling rivalry.
Over the years, we lost touch with this couple and their children, so I don’t know how the relationship between his children developed. However, I know of plenty of situations where brothers and sisters harbor deep-seated anger and resentment because of unresolved childhood conflicts. In these cases, parents, much like the one that I describe above, basically stood by under the misguided notion that one’s children will “just figure this stuff out.”
Also, I have seen this type of “passive” parenting especially in situations where the fights between their children were verbal as opposed to physical. As I have thought about this over the years, it struck me that parents who don’t get involved in these instances believe two oft-quoted idioms that are actually fallacies. The first idiom, which is heard frequently in schoolyards, is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now, of course, this is a fantastic retort for a 10-year-old who is being teased, but it’s just not true.
In my role in ministry, I spend a lot of time talking with people about past hurts. In my experience, most people connect their woundedness and emotional pain to something that was said to them, especially as a child. Indeed, words can and do hurt a lot, and if a father allows his children to continually say hurtful things to each other the consequences can be long-lasting. It can create insecurity and a poor self-image into adulthood. Remember, Philippians 4:8 says that our children should be thinking about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Accordingly, to the best of his ability, a father should make sure the words his children hear from their siblings reflect the essence of this important verse.
The second idiom is “Time heals all wounds.” Again, although this saying is quite poetic, it’s just not true. My wife is a physician and she would be quick to tell you there are many types of wounds that, if left untreated, are made worse by the passage of time. Alas, it’s not time that heals wounds. Medicine does. I believe that the wounds siblings can inflict on each other fall into this category. After all, those who should love you the most can hurt you the most. That’s why God gave children parents, who, like good physicians, can teach them how to apply the “medicines” of repentance when they have hurt their siblings and forgiveness when they have been hurt by their siblings.
But, there is another important reason I believe it’s critical for parents to take a leadership role in stemming sibling rivalry. If not addressed, sibling rivalries can and do escalate into abuse and, even, violence. For example, I read a story in the New York Times about a guy named Daniel Smith who retold a harrowing tale of growing up with an abusive older brother. He said that he received beatings from his brother “from infancy until he reached the threshold of manhood.” He offered that his brother would grip him in a headlock or stranglehold and punch him repeatedly. He also said, “fighting back just made it worse, so I’d just take it and wait for it to be over…What was I going to do? Where was I going to go? I was 10 years old.” Sadly, one has to wonder where was Daniel’s parents were while this was going on. In any case, it’s not surprising that as a result of this abuse, Daniel and his brother were estranged for most of their adult lives.
It’s stories like Daniel’s that inspired me to step in when two brothers I know were starting down a path towards a very destructive relationship. Interestingly, the source of their ongoing conflict was competitive for their parents’ affection and attention. Thankfully, they were still young so there was time to change the quality of their relationship. Below is a letter that I sent to the oldest brother, with the parents’ permission, after a visit with them when a major conflict erupted between them–with the oldest brother as key instigator. [Names have been changed for the sake of privacy.]
Happy 13th Birthday! I hope that you had a good one. and I wanted to drop you a note to follow up on a few things that we discussed. I hope that you remember the example that I used with the baking pans to illustrate why there is not a competition between you and Johnny for your parents’ love and attention. You have your pan and Johnny has his pan. Your mom and dad have enough love to fill them both. God makes sure of that.
I also want to remind you of President Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Don’t let yourself get robbed. Competition is great in the right places and at the right time. It’s like fire. It’s fine in the fireplace but outside the fireplace, it’s dangerous and will destroy everything and everyone that you love and those who love you.
Remember, God made you special with a special role as the older brother. He gave you Bobby to love and to lead by your example. But, leading is not bossing. It’s caring. You are called and made to be a special servant leader, just like Jesus, to the one that God placed in your care. It’s an honor to be an older brother and it’s a responsibility too. But, God knows that He can trust you. You see, servant leadership is not about telling someone what to do. It’s about showing someone how to live and love by your example–just like Jesus did. He faced disappointments and challenges, just like you do and will, but He modeled kindness, patience, and caring. He was humble in victory-not boastful. And, because of His example, people wanted to follow Him and they still do today. You see, Bobby wants to look up to you–as his older brother. But, you have to live in a way that models the right things. So, take this challenge and be the kind of brother that he will see as someone that he would want to be and that he would want his sons to be like someday.
Remember, God made you to do great things and he has a plan for your life. Don’t ever forget this. But, true greatness is tied to what you do for others–Loving your God and loving your neighbor and your closest neighbor is Bobby. So, give Bobby an example to admire as you, now 13, grow daily towards manhood. God knows you can and your parents know you can. And, you know you can.
Happy Birthday again!
This post was adapted from Bad Dads of the Bible: 8 Mistakes Every Good Dad Can Avoid. You can order a copy here.