Monday, August 1, 2016

Brotherly Love

Ethan and Jackson
"CANNONBALL!!!" Swimming is a family favorite at the Reuter home.  My boys, Ethan and Jackson, would swim daily in our pool if the weather and our family schedule presented them with the opportunity. We have a pool prep routine: suits, sunscreen, toys and rafts in the pool, and then, "SPLASH"! They enter the cool, blue water with such grins on their faces.  Ethan picks up Jackson, and they move around the pool in unison.  They giggle and laugh as they discuss the next toy they will use. I am always impressed by their love for each other and the teamwork they exhibit.  I decide this behavior must come from my brilliant parenting skills.  I start to dream about sharing my methods with Parents magazine, as I am sure that other parents would want the same level of devotion to their children.  
As I continue to watch them interact, I am touched by the sweet conversation and loving interaction, when suddenly…"MOM!!!!!!!!!" I hesitate for a moment to see if this is the boy who cried wolf, like so many other pleas for help, or if this is the real deal.  Ethan tries to calm the screaming beast that is 4-year-old Jackson, but to no avail. He swims away, like any frustrated 11-year-old might do, trying to avoid the kicks, slaps, and pinches from Jackson's flailing limbs. Ethan looks at me as if to assure that I knew this was not his fault. This move by Ethan anger the beast more and throws him into full tantrum mode. "MOM!!!! Ethan is mean!" howls Jackson. What follows are yelps and wails of pain and anger which are heard throughout our neighborhood.
As my dreams of the feature in Parents magazine slip away, I put on my mom hat and decide how I will intervene.  I pause and think, what if I don't? As I contemplate my next move, I can't help but think back to my childhood experiences with my brother. What did my mom (who was also a teacher) do when it seemed like my brother and I were on the path to the point of no return?

This thought took me back to Three Lakes, WI where I spent almost every childhood summer at our cabin.  Looking back, I realize how lucky we were to have a special place to visit as a family that allowed my brother, Jayson, and me to fish, ride bikes, explore and swim in beautiful Big Stone Lake. The first thing Jayson and I would do after we helped my parents unpack was head to the lake. We would start at the top of the stairs, run the length of the pier, and with an excited screech, we would dive into the water.  The time of year and temperature rarely mattered since we just wanted to swim. We would spend hours in the lake.  A few favorite activities included diving contests, searching for smooth, colorful rocks to add to our collection, and finding clams and catching crayfish using old pots and pans. As you can imagine, all of these activities required communication and teamwork.  We proudly counted our rocks, clams, and crayfish, always wanting to find more.  We knew if we combined our treasures from the lake, we would exceed last year's totals.  Whenever I see a smooth rock ready for skipping, or a crayfish moving its way through shallow lake water, I can't help but smile and remember those happy times with Jayson.

Unfortunately, not all interactions in the lake were filled with love and compassion.  I have plenty of memories of fearing for my life while in the water.  My brother, who is two years older, liked the fact that he was bigger and stronger than me. He was better at diving off the pier and reminded me of this fact every chance he got.  He also thought it was hilarious when he jumped off the pier and tried to land on me.  If he were really in the mood, he would only push me down and hold me underwater until I couldn't breathe.  Not cool. Finally, his preferred means of torture was to push me off the end of the pier before I was ready to enter the chilly water. When these events happened, I would look to my mom for help. I, like Jackson, would scream "MOM!!!!!"  What I remember is she rarely intervened, but when she did, look out.  It meant she had enough of our petty conflicts, which usually meant we needed to get out of the lake, sit on the pier, or head up to the cabin.  Over time I discovered I needed to weigh my options before screaming.  I learned to defend myself and fight back, or simply swim away like Ethan did.  There is nothing bully bros hate more than victims who are brave enough to stand up for themselves.  Each summer was a new opportunity to grow and reflect, and also develop bravery, strength, and resilience.

More splashing and screaming returned my focus to the escalating situation in the Reuter pool.  I get up from my comfortable perch in the lounge chair and move closer to the pool.  My primary concern is always the safety of my swimmers, so I assess Jackson's "real" level of need.  I observe that he is safe on his noodle and all of his screams stem from his want of attention from his older brother.  By this point, it seems that Ethan has realized the same thing. Ethan lets out a "sigh", and then swims back towards Jackson.  "Jackson, will you be nice to me if I come back and play with you?" questioned Ethan.

"Ok….." whispers Jackson.

Ethan asks, "What do you need to say, Jackson?"  

Jackson hesitates and says nothing while looking down at the water moving past his red face.  Ethan patiently asks again, "What do you need to say, Jackson, if you want me to play with you?"Jackson finally looks up at Ethan.  The anger has drained from his face, and there is a look of remorse.

Jackson finally looks into Ethan's eyes; slowly and quietly whispering, "Soooorrrry, Ethan." Ethan assures Jackson that he is forgiven, and asks Jackson for a hug.  Jackson throws his little arms around Ethan's neck and holds him tight.  Ethan begins to carry him around the pool again, and within a few seconds, I hear giggles coming from Jackson.  Ethan and I look at each other and start to laugh as well.  I return to my perch on the lounge chair and hope that this calm will last for at least a little while.  

As I reflect on this day, as well as my time spent with my brother, I realize how important a sibling can be to a child and an adult.  Not only do you hopefully have a life-long friend who lives in your home, but you also have someone to share your success, failure and family crisis.  Do siblings always celebrate these achievements and treat failures with care? Not always, but we can learn from how siblings treat each other. Siblings, on their best day, can exhibit love, compassion, teamwork, and communication.  Siblings prepare you for school, work, and life situations in the future.  On their worst days, they are mean and hurtful to each other. Siblings teach us other essential skills needed for school, work, and life.  These are patience, strength, reflection, and the importance of crucial conversations to repair relationships.

My husband, who is an only child, reminds my boys and me how lucky we are to have a sibling to share these moments, at both times of pure joy and unresolved conflict. My hope for you is that you have a sibling to share your life.  If not, find someone who loves and challenges you as much as a sibling would.  You will be better for having someone in your life that can be both your teammate and opponent based on the situation. I leave you with a quote about siblings that touches my heart,  "The greatest gift my parents ever gave us was each other." So true.

Jayson and Julie
Mom, Jayson and Julie    
My boys and I