When school let out, I was excited for summer, but that's because I had forgotten about the bickering. With four children at home, bickering among my kids obviously is a year-round issue. But the high season for bickering is late summer, coincidental with the “dog days” when tempers and temperatures generally flare, and three months of togetherness wears like sand in your swimsuit.
On any given morning, bickering ensues before breakfast with a meaningless debate about who gets “the good chair” to watch cartoons.
Then it's a quick tussle over the morning meal who got the last “everything” bagel and which lucky sibling gets the remaining Lucky Charms.
When I assign kitchen chores (this isn't exactly heavy labor just unloading and reloading the dishwasher), sparks fly over who had this job yesterday and the day before, and who will do it tomorrow and next Tuesday.
A truism about bickering is: The intensity of the argument increases disproportionately with the importance of the subject. Ergo, the topic that causes the most vitriolic albeit empty bickering is the seating arrangement in the van. Seriously. Anyone with more than one child knows what I'm talking about.
Who-sits-where in the van has consumed more emotional energy than all subjects of debate combined. And with literally a hundred opportunities each week to jockey for position, I might listen to bickering over this non-issue up to a dozen times a day.
Like now, for instance. I'm sitting here with the motor running, adjusting the rear-view mirror while waiting for the gang to appear in bathing suits and flip-flops for a trip to the pool. There's room for one kid in the front passenger seat, two in the middle section, and a fourth in “the way back.”
Since it's only a ten-minute drive, the fighting will be particularly fierce.
One by one, they trickle out of the house and into the garage, past the shoe baskets where the flip-flops should be (but usually aren't a topic for another day), and into the van. The rule is the first one in goes to “the way back.” It seemed like a logical rule when I made it we'd fill the car from the rear to avoid crawling over the other passengers. But this is the reason nobody wants to be the first one in, which probably is why I'm sitting in an empty van in the first place.
As often happens, they ignore the “way back rule.” One of the older girls gets in front, and the next two out of the house occupy the captain's chairs in the center of the van. The last one out is miffed, thinking she'd waited long enough to get one of the “good seats.” She launches her offensive with that trusty opener, “They always sit in the middle.”
By now, I'm miffed she took so long, so I don't enforce the “way back” rule. Instead, I apply arbitrary parental problem-solving to stop the volley of snippy remarks. “Hey, you snooze, you lose.” And we're off to the pool.
Once, in an effort to curb the conflicts, I tried assigned seats. It lasted about a week because I couldn't remember who was supposed to sit where and when I said I would rotate the assignments.
In my dreams, they'd just pile in the van, grateful that we have a van, and that it runs, and that it takes them everywhere they need to go, not to mention the places they just want to go. They'd offer the rest of the Oreo Cookie ice cream to each other, instead of fighting over it until it melts. They'd say things like, “could you move over a little?” while walking in the mall instead of “get out of my way” like they encountered a cockroach.
In short, they'd treat each other like strangers instead of siblings.
Then again, without all their bickering, they wouldn't be so close, would they?
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She also has worked in marketing and public relations positions in corporate and agency settings. Mostly, she spends a lot of time in her mini-van, where the real work of parenting actually happens. Learn more about Marybeth and her column at www.marybethhicks.com.)