A year or so ago, I had to have a serious talk with my oldest (who was three years old at the time). He and his little brother (who was around 18 months old) were fighting rather regularly, and I was worried that he was going to seriously hurt the little guy by mistake.
It happened after one of their blow ups, and I took him aside and explained that he had to protect his little brother. I pointed out how my most important job was to protect both of them, and his job was to protect his little brother. We went through all the things I did to keep him safe, established that he liked me to do them, and then he agreed to do them with his little brother.
It lasted about three months – until the little brother realized that the older was no longer really fighting back.
I tried to have the same “you have to keep him safe” talk with him. It didn’t take at all.
We had about a month of fighting then, and then we had an Event.
It happened when I interrupted a fight where they were actually hitting each other. I sat them down and loomed over them. “My job,” I said in my most serious voice, “is to keep you both safe.” They both nodded, so I leaned in close and said very quietly “even from each other.”
They looked at each other, trying to decide if I was joking. The little one started to laugh and tried to slap his brother’s arm. I caught his hand, and held it in my closed fist in front of his face. I’ll admit I was a bit angry, but I kept my voice low and level. “Do you see how big this hand is?” He nodded uncertainly. “Do you really want to take me on?”
It was a tense moment, but he shook his head. I looked at his brother, and he shook his head quickly.
I have no idea what the parenting books would say about this, but it worked. Where inspiration and love had failed, fear seemed to take hold.
Now let’s zoom forward eleven months or so to this past weekend, just after I’d given them baths. The big guy (who’s over four now) was biting a towel that I was holding. I don’t know why. He was just being silly, I think..
“Hey, no biting!” I said. I wasn’t yelling or anything, just trying to get him to stop.
His little brother looked over from his towel. “He bit your thumb?”
“No,” I said, laughing. “If he bit me, I would be a lot louder and a lot angrier.”
The older brother laughed. “Yeah, and if I bit you,” he said, pointing to his little brother, “then, oh…” He looked up at me, suddenly nervous, “oh no… no. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t!”
I laughed. “Don’t worry, big guy. I know you wouldn’t. I know.” I gave him a big towelly bear hug.
The whole thing left me feeling more than a little ashamed of myself, but I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I never wanted to be feared. On the other, the boys do watch out for each other now and they rarely physically hurt each other.
It’s very confusing.