My younger daughter rushed upstairs, her face wet with tears. She said she was having trouble putting together a Lego structure and couldn’t figure out what to do. When she asked her big sister for help, she cut her down—her words sharp and pointed and straight into the heart.
Yes, it had been a long summer. When you move to a new state, your sibling becomes your full-time playmate. My children had been in the company of one another for two solid months, no reprieves. But I’ve noticed that as my older daughter becomes more tween and less child, her patience is thinner … her sass stronger … her tone edgier. And there’s something about her little sister’s laid-back, leisurely nature that pushes her buttons. But something needed to be said before irreparable damage was done.
I went downstairs to talk privately with my older child. She was aptly securing the final pieces to an impressive Lego tree house. Pushing stray pieces aside, I sat down next to her. “I have something to tell you,” I said my voice low and serious. My daughter knew to stop fiddling and look into my eyes. “Whether you like it or not, you are shaping your little sister’s self-esteem. The way she feels about herself will largely come from how you treat her. In fact, your opinion of her may be even more important than mine.”
I paused to let my daughter absorb this information. When I continued talking, I surprised myself by divulging something I hadn’t fully appreciated until that moment. “Do you know why I know the impact your opinion has on your sister’s life?” My daughter shook her head. “Because I was the little sister. Yes, my sister and I fought over clothes, music, whose turn it was to feed the cat, the bathroom, and other silly things, but never once did my sister shame me or put me down. Not once. Just imagine what that gift did for me.”
By now I was crying. Surprisingly my daughter wasn’t looking at me strangely or searching for the nearest exit. With a mixture of interest and sadness, my daughter looked like maybe what I had to say was something worth listening to. I swallowed hard, attempting to regain control over my unexpected emotional breakdown. “We all need someone in our corner, to have our back, to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. If you haven’t noticed, your little sister looks at you like a hero. And when you criticize or belittle, it hurts. But when you compliment or encourage her, she soars.”
Later, as I later replayed the conversation back in my head, I was reminded of the most important “rule” I had in my classroom when I was a teacher. I informed my students that our classroom was a safe haven. While I fully expected there to be squabbles and disagreements between children, there would be no hurtful attacks on physical appearance, intelligence, or abilities. I realize now that this is how I feel about my home. I expect my children to treat each other respectfully and kindly, no exceptions. To some this might sound like a ridiculous aspiration, head-in-the-clouds kind of thinking. “Siblings are supposed to knock each other down and toughen each other up,” I can just hear the naysayers say. I might have agreed with that statement had it not been for my sister showing me what happens when a family member believes in you despite knowing your every weakness and fault.
You see, in grade school I was a mess. I had a bad bowl cut. Too many freckles covered my nose. I wore the same awful navy blue sweater every single day until it practically disintegrated. My hair held the unbecoming shine of ultra quick showers minus the shampoo. I had the worst smelling feet. I gained a lot of weight the summer before middle school and got stretch marks. I was ashamed. While my parents worked, my sister took me to the neighborhood pool. She never said a word about my body. She only said, “I love your bathing suit.” I remember. It meant everything that she chose to look beyond the unsightly marks.
In high school my sister would wave me over as I walked down the halls. She would introduce her awkward freshman sister to her senior high friends. She was proud of who I was. She believed in me. My sister never told me I was not capable even if she thought there was no way I could make the volleyball team or move up a chair in orchestra. As an adult, my sister showed me the same support. Knowing how much I loved to write, she was adamant that I should start a blog. I said I didn’t know how. She sent me a book telling me how. She said she would help. My sister kept saying I should and I could until I finally tried. I would not be a published author today had it not been for the unconditional love and encouragement I received from my sister. My life would have turned out very differently if my sister had routinely tore me down rather than continually build me up.
My greatest hope is that my children encourage each other this way. I cannot force it to happen, but I can model it. Because honestly, talking to my older daughter about how I expect her to treat her sister has shined a slightly uncomfortable spotlight onto my own words and actions. The truth is, the way I treat my older daughter will reflect how she treats her younger sister. Just as she is shaping her little sister’s self-esteem through words and actions, I am shaping hers.
Just as I told her to think about the voice she is using with her sister—is it kind? Is it impatient? Is it encouraging? I must consider my tone too.
Just as I told her to think about the messages she is giving—You matter. You’re smart. I believe in you. I must think about my words too.
Just as I told her if you don’t like her wearing grubby t-shirts every day, compliment her when she wears something you do like. I am trying to practice that too.
Just as I told her to notice when her sister is stressed out or struggling and to say, “how can I help?” instead of “just deal with it.” I must remember this too.
Those are things my big sister did for me. Not perfectly. But consistently. And it made a life-changing difference.
Last week my daughters began riding the bus at our new school. It was the first time they’ve ever been “bus riders” since our old neighborhood didn’t have school buses. On the second night of school I heard the girls talking in the basement.
“When the teacher says walk to the bus, you need to go as fast as you can, okay? I was worried you were going to miss it. I kept praying you were coming. Walk real fast tomorrow. I know you can do it,” said the big one.
“Okay, I will,” promised the little one. “Thanks for letting nothing bad happen to me.”
“I won’t,” said her protector.
We all need someone in our corner … to have our back … to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. We can do that, my friends. We can do that for our sisters … our brothers … our children … and for each other. We can do that for the people who are learning how to treat others by watching us live.
I leave you with my own personal pledge so I can build up, not tear down … so I can be a role model, not a bad example … so I can leave a legacy, not a scar. These are my hopes for anyone who spends time in my presence.
The Presence Pledge
I hope you feel like a welcomed spark to my life, not an inconvenience, annoyance, or bother to my day.
I hope you feel comfortable in your skin, not constantly wondering how many things you need to change before you’re loved and celebrated.
I hope you feel heard, valued, and understood, not dismissed for being too young or too inexperienced have an opinion or know what you need to thrive.
I hope you feel capable and confident, not incapable of doing something without constant supervision and correction.
I hope you feel brave to bare the colors of your soul, not pressured to hide your light or play small to gain acceptance.
I hope after spending an hour … a day … a lifetime in my presence,
I leave your heart fuller,
your smile wider,
your spirit stronger
your future brighter
than you could have ever imagined by yourself.
I wrote The Presence Pledge after reading a powerful article by Andrea Nair. The following question immediately grabbed me and made me think about how I want to impact the people in my life:
“This is a great question to continually ask yourself to grow a strong, positive relationship with your children: How do my children feel about themselves as a result of spending time with me?” -Andrea Nair
I also want to share three other pieces that promote grasping what really matters in a world of distraction, pressure, and perfection:
2) Interview with Catherine Steiner-Adair author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” This article has very helpful information about creating healthy boundaries between life and technology.
3) Backpacks for Everyone - My dear author friend Galit Breen is matching children who need a backpack with those willing to donate a backpack. Staples has the first 25 covered so please let her know if you need one. (They are filled with school supplies, as well). Or if your family is looking for a way to make a difference in someone’s life, this a very simple way! Learn more here.
Please feel free to share your thoughts, stories, and experiences regarding protecting sibling relationships. Thank you for walking beside me on this journey to live more and love more in the precious time we are given, my friends of The Hands Free Revolution. I will never forget the flood of encouraging comments you wrote last week that lifted me from a period of uncertainty and doubt. My writing has been fueled in a way I have never felt before. So thankful for you.