How Perfectly Imperfect People Fit Together in Our Home

November 26, 2018

If my ex-husband and I can remain close friends, maybe we can teach our boys to do likewise.

My sons were in the midst of a typical sibling squabble when I finally voiced my version of every parent’s biggest anxiety. “Treat him better than this! He’ll be around when your dad and I are long gone.” In reality, this was just a small tiff between two boys trying to get their own way, but in the moment all I saw was their lives unraveling with escalating versions of this scenario playing out over the coming decades. And that thought terrified me.

Will my kids end up alone?

So, there it was, in that small moment. The anxiety nearly every mother and father confronts as soon as we create life: that our kids might end up alone, that we won’t always be around to protect them, to help them lead fulfilling lives.

And of all of the possible insurance plans to protect our kids from future isolation and loneliness, building up strong sibling relationships seems the ideal way to quiet our universal, gnawing parental concern. But how to accomplish this with kids who happen to share very little in common?

Though my husband and I divorced a few years ago, we remain good friends largely because, not despite, the fact that we’re so different. Our boys have similarly polarized personalities: one is deeply logical, and the other is empathy incarnate. Sometimes they speak such different languages and use such diverging life strategies that I have to step in as simultaneous translator, let alone as referee.

Model puzzle-fitting as adults

Their dad and I do what we can to demonstrate ways that yin-yang relationships can become welded together for life—even when that means not sharing the same roof. We continue to support each other and have learned to appreciate the diverging lenses we use to view the world. We fill in for each other’s weaknesses when it’s helpful; we exercise patience when it’s not.

To help our boys understand the value of polarized personality mash-ups, we like to tell them they are our “Two Steves,” referring to their heroes, Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Famously, one of them is the brainiac coder, and his counterpart the zen master of strategy, context and persuasion. We remind them that without Wozniak, Jobs might have ended up an extremely good marketer, and without Jobs, Wozniak would likely still be in his garage creating motherboards and giving them away for free. It took both men to invent Apple.

We remain good friends largely because, not despite, the fact that we’re so different.

The benefits of difference

This kind of yin-yang can be vexing at times, but more often than not, it actually proves really useful—whether you’re reinventing computers or just trying to raise two happy sons. In the case of the latter, their dad is all cool-headed and methodical (total gearhead) while I’m scrappy, socially nimble and more driven by emotion. On the road toward discovering exactly who we were raising, and how to raise them, their dad and I each used very different tactics.

I leaned on the experts, and “Grow the tree ya’ got” is some of the best advice I ever received. I happened upon it while looking at schools for these two young iconoclasts—and it turns out that a cypress has very different needs and strengths than a spruce. I took the advice to heart and spent some serious time trying to figure out exactly what type of trees I was, in fact, growing.

Battle-tested strategies

Instead of trying to make my sons more alike, I’ve learned to value the ways they differ, and I encourage them to do likewise. Their dad and I also make sure they know how much we value their unique personalities, and when needed, we help them bridge their differing methods of conflict resolution. We describe them as a team, with each boy providing crucial skills to accomplishing big things, and we try to give them opportunities to “walk a mile” in each other’s shoes to better understand how the other one sees the world.

I encourage small acts of kindness between them and ask the boys to look after each other when one is struggling. My sons are close enough in age that each one naturally takes the lead in certain aspects of their lives. The older brother typically discovers brainy new diversions for them to share, while the younger one is the natural problem-solver of the two.

The ties that bind our Technicolor tapestry

When they’re at their best, my boys lean on the other’s strengths, but this means tackling insecurity and the competitiveness so innate to siblings. Brothers and sisters tend to migrate toward attributes and arenas not currently occupied by another sibling: if one is the natural jock, the other might decide to become the family scholar or musician. This natural gravitational pull creates interesting scatter patterns within families and helps explain why children who share the same household environment and DNA can end up so different from each other.

Every household has its own journey ahead of them, but what we all have in common is the potential for siblings to complement each other’s weaknesses. This co-dependency is among the important cords that tether brothers and sisters together. It turns out that being perfectly incomplete allows someone else room enough to get in there and help complete us, and that is what I want for these two boys currently sparring over who gets to choose want we listen to on our drive out to the beach.

It turns out that being perfectly incomplete allows someone else room enough to get in there and help complete us.

As I try to reason with them, reminding them that neither boy is required to be friends with the other in the long-run, that they have to earn this valuable lifelong relationship, their dad walks by and coolly surveys the situation. “Who’s day is it?” he asks.

I had forgotten that when they were still toddlers their dad assigned each boy an odd or even day status, giving them a 50/50 chance of winning the day at any particular moment, and teaching them to defer to the other’s small triumph with the knowledge that their day for minor victories is just around the corner. It’s a brilliant, simple tactic that settles most power plays that have emerged since then.

Upon hearing his question, both boys stop in their tracks. My younger son lights up: “My day,” he says brightly. His older brother instantly relents and returns to packing up his sports equipment for the car.

I stand there, slack-jawed at the genius of this strategy and of its impact on these now harmonious siblings. I would never have thought of it. In the heat of the moment, my tactic had been to burden my sons with the portentous weight this squabble had on their future happiness and my current peace of mind. Their dad just tossed in some even-handed logic.

As I turn to finish my own packing it occurs to me that one of my biggest parental fears might just work itself out after all. If their dad and I can remain friends without a formally-defined relationship, maybe these two can do likewise after they venture out into the world, trading in a shared roof for the shared bedrock earned through synergy and the friendship it fosters.

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