Parents like to think that we run things in the house, that we orchestrate how things will go based on how rested, fed and healthy our kids are. This may be true when they are infants, but there comes a point when it's actually the firstborn child who holds the key to a happy household. Especially when there are siblings involved.
After school ended and before summer camp started, my kids spent two weeks at home together with no set schedule. We took day trips here and there, but the rest of the time, they were at each other's throats. And the noise! I couldn't hear myself think. I had had it up to here one day with the poking, teasing and tattling, and when I heard, "Mom! He's breathing my AIR!" I knew that someone was not going to survive the summer.
Fortunately, it wasn't long before day camp began for both boys. Jacob had been to this camp before, but Ben had not. I could tell Ben was anxious when I dropped them off: he didn't know anyone in his group, but Jacob knew at least three kids.
"Jacob," I said, pulling him aside, "if Ben gets upset or anxious today, can he come to you? I think it would help him to know that he could."
"Yeah," he answered grudgingly.
Such heartwarming enthusiasm was sure to ease Ben's mind (read: Jacob answered in the affirmative), so I went over to tell him before I left. No sooner did I reach him than Jacob was beside me saying, "Ben, I know you're nervous, but I had a great time at this camp last year. It's lots of fun and you'll make a lot of friends. I'm here if you need me."
That was a turning point in the day for all of us. Jacob stepped up and acted like the big brother that Ben was always longing to look up to. He made me proud to know that he could show such genuine kindness and understanding to his brother. And it continued even after they got home. Jacob set the table, helped his brother with various games, offered to help me cook and cleaned up afterward. He even checked in on his brother after Ben had gone to bed but was calling for me with a question.
I pointed out to Jacob that, when he acts as he did that day, it changes the dynamic of the entire family. Being nice to his brother makes Ben happy and kinder. That leads to no fighting, which makes me happier and means less yelling. That makes dad happy when he gets home to find a harmonious family waiting for him.
And Jacob holds the key to it all.
"So, I'm like the first domino," he said. "If I fall, we all fall, but if I stay standing, we all stay up."
There comes a point when our children begin making conscious choices that impact the rest of the family. Teaching them how they can support the 'team' by being their best and helping out gives them the power to control the level of happiness in the house. But it also makes them feel like a valuable member of the family, and ultimately society.
Ooh, and did you hear that? I'm pretty sure I just heard a pin drop.