“I finished first, didn’t I Mummy? I’m taller, aren’t I Mummy? I’m quicker. I’m better. I beat you”. As a mother of two girls, aged 3 and 4, these words fill my every day.
And they are not phrases that I have taught them, they are words that come to them naturally. They are naturally competing with each other. The number of times we have tears because one of them is served first at the table, or because one of them gets to the trampoline first, is kind of hard to fathom.
I have two children of the same sex, with a very small age gap, and I really believe that this pattern of competition is an unhealthy pattern of relationship for them to have for the rest of their life. But this is a pattern they are naturally falling into, so as a parent I have to be intentional about giving them another paradigm to work with.
There is a beautiful image in ‘She’s not your competition’ by Kelley Chisholm and Penny Webb of companion planting.
“Companion planting is the planting of different crops in proximity, based on the theory that they assist each other in nutrient uptake, pest control, pollination, and other factors for increasing productivity. For example, the sweet pea is a great companion plant for grapes, and farmers at times plant peas to replenish the nitrogen in the soil. Some plants are great companion plants because they protect and shade the roots of another plant” (p.119).
This is the image I love for my girls. One of them will always be taller than the other (though that may change over time), one of them will always be better than the other at something, but they are not in competition. They are planted next to each other in the garden that is our family, our church and our community, and they share the same light, and the same soil.
But because they are their own people they will flourish in different ways.
Or if you will give me some grace to extend the metaphor, they will take up different nutrients and blossom as their own beautiful individual flowers. One may be an orchid, the other may be a rose, but they will both be beautiful in their own individual way.
The challenge for my husband and I, as parents, is how we help create an atmosphere of companionship, where individuality can shine, and not an atmosphere of competition.
As always it starts with us. We have to eliminate little seemingly meaningless competitions like “let’s see who can get their PJ’s on first”. Which are useful for us, but actually are not fostering the spirit of companionship that we want to achieve.
We need to celebrate the uniqueness of each of the girls and encourage them to cheer each other on. I am particularly pleased with how my eldest daughter is her sister’s biggest champion with toilet training. She heaps praise on her sister and encourages her every time.
I have also found that reading articles and books that tackle this topic, like Steve Biddulph’s ‘Raising Girls’ and Penny and Kelley’s, ‘She’s not your competition’, to be useful tools.
As always we are learning as we go, but hopefully these little steps will help our girls grow into individuals who understand and celebrate their own gifts and strengths. As well as being women who celebrate the gifts of, not just their sister, but other women too.
I love that companionship image too. A great perspective on natural sibling rivalry and an approach to building healthy relationships in your home.
Yes, such a great image from Penny. Thanks Elaine.