The ties that bind–and shape and hold

One evening this summer, as our family settled into their seats at a restaurant, my 20-year-old daughter said to my then 5-year-old son, “I’ve got my eyes on you.”

Claire McCarthy, MD

My mother-in-law took my kids to the same restaurant the summer before, and apparently Liam behaved badly.  He was loud.  He kept getting out of his seat and climbing under the table—and when they finally got him in his seat, he kept trying to lie down. To be fair to Liam, he was 4 years old at the time. But a year later he still liked getting under tables, and Michaela wasn’t taking any chances. She sat directly across from him and did indeed keep her eyes on him. She kept him in his chair, upright the entire time, and except when he felt ignored when he had Something Important to say, he wasn’t loud at all.

As Michaela did this, I enjoyed my dinner.

When you have a family with more than one child, you think about raising each one and the relationships you will have with them. If you think about the relationships they will have with each other, you mostly just hope that they will be friends. But those relationships between them have a way of becoming so much more than that.

In our five-kid family, you see it most with Liam. “Say please, Liam.” “Clear your plate.” “That isn’t a nice thing to say.” “Come on, you need to help clean up.” “Hold my hand and we’ll look both ways before we cross the street.”  Every day, they are paying attention to him in many of the same ways my husband and I do, thinking about the same things. “I can’t watch that show,” Liam told me one day, pointing to an ad on TV. “Elsa says it’s inappropriate for me.” I almost burst out laughing. Elsa was absolutely right about the show–and was teaching him vocabulary too!

Elsa and Liam

But it’s not just with Liam. They keep each other in line, too. Fairness is enforced always.  Someone trying to slip around a house rule (like turning the TV on when it’s turned off for the day) is routinely busted. If two are fighting, chances are another will come in and break it up. (“Natasha, let him play with that toy, it’s his. Liam, you need to share better—and you can’t yell like that.”) As they do this stuff, they sound amazingly like my husband and me. Which, sometimes, is the only way I know they are actually listening to us.

It’s not just about correcting each other. Liam’s potty training, or first day of kindergarten, or making the Mini-Sharks on the swim team, were all very big deals in our house. When he got his Munchkin soccer uniform and was so proud he could burst, Elsa and Natasha took him outside to kick a soccer ball so he could try it out, and pictures were texted to the college sibs. The big ones teach the little ones to boogie board or build sandcastles at the beach; they help with homework and give advice about the latest social drama. They go to the concerts and swim meets and soccer games and graduations and college family weekends. They brag to their friends about their siblings’ achievements. They worry about each other, and comfort each other when things go badly.

Don’t get me wrong—they argue and get jealous and are unreasonable with each other too. They are normal kids. But they clearly and deeply care about each other.

It shouldn’t surprise me; I feel the same way about my sister. But it does surprise me. It surprises me how many important moments and relationships within my family happen independently of my husband and me—and how much my children are raising each other.

I guess that’s the thing you don’t realize at the start: a family is much more than the sum of its parts. It takes on a life of its own—and while this can get tricky and complicated, it’s mostly a really good thing. Sometimes my kids do a better job with each other than I can, perhaps because they are closer to the life experiences than I am.

And I know as I watch them together that if I screw up, or if I can’t be there for them, they will be okay—because they will have each other.