Sisterhood Blog

For Siblings, How Close Is Too Close?

By Danielle Leshaw

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Danielle Leshaw
The writer’s seven-year-old daughter, Ruthie, and 10-year-old son, Zev.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times Motherlode blog featured an essay I wrote in anticipation of my children attending overnight summer camp for the first time. Zev and Ruthie, ages 10 and seven respectively, leave this week for Camp Kimama, near Netanya, Israel — and they’ll be sleeping in separate spaces for the first time.

As always with blog posts, there’s a host of fascinating comments. Some are incredibly supportive and acknowledge the remarkable relationship our children have with one another: “I think it’s an awesome sibling bond your kids have!” one reader wrote in the comments section.

Early on, my husband and I intentionally strived to create a connection of love and strength between brother and sister. And we’ve succeeded, using a variety of methods, mostly of the attachment sibling variety — from tandem breastfeeding to having them share a sibling bed. Bedtime rituals are common in our house, from the sh’ma to simple expressions of gratitude and love. I consider this one of my greatest accomplishments as a parent. My son and daughter are each other’s greatest advocates. They are each other’s most hilarious audience. And of course, they annoy one another and cut deep like nobody else can. But they love being together and simply wanted to share camp in every possible way. As one commenter stated in the clearest of terms: “I think there is nothing wrong with that.”

However, some sentiments expressed in the comments section made me want to jump off the nearest bridge or strangle the commenter.

You’d think, by many of the more judgmental opinions in the comments section, that our parenting decisions — namely, to keep our kids in the same bedroom and create a setting for friendship and interdependency — had crippled them and actually kept them from exploring their independence. Many people expressed relief that our children could finally get away from one another and assert themselves, or have the opportunity to grow up and have new experiences that they otherwise couldn’t have in the midst of the other sibling.

Underlying these comments are a host of unquestioned assertions, not just about sibling relationships but also about what camp is or should be and why kids go in the first place. And then there are the unquestioned assumptions about how my son and daughter’s needs will change, since they’re a boy/girl sibling team, and what we should be doing to figure it out immediately.

One commenter tells us: “In a few years, your son will need privacy at night from his sister. May as well start practicing now.”

There are assumptions in this statement — mostly assumptions about class and financial capacity. I’m a rabbi in Southeastern Ohio and my husband is an academic. We have a small house. We have no extra bedrooms. There is no conversation about moving anybody out of any room and putting them into another room. And yet the author of this quote naturally assumes that we’re living in a typical suburban space and we’re simply holding our son back from moving into an unoccupied bedroom. To that commenter, I want to say: Our son will figure out where to take care of his personal needs. The bathroom shower has worked for millions of boys for at least the last one hundred years.

Another commenter writes: “Camp should be about making new friends and having new experiences and developing independence.” Well, of course! But then: “They’ll be better at these without a sibling by their side.”

Says who? They sit in separate classrooms at school, participate in after-school activities, attend birthday parties and have play dates — both with and without each other. And they manage it all beautifully, no better when they’re apart, no better when they’re together. They just simply go about their business when it comes to learning and growing and fostering relationships outside of their sibling team. Why the assumption that the only way to make new friends and have new experiences and develop independence (which is overrated, by the way) is to be without your sibling by your side?

And then there’s the deep concern that many commenters express for the 7-year-old — she’s too young, they say. She’s not ready, they insist. Her brother shouldn’t have to worry about her, others reason. To this last assertion, I say: I’m incredibly proud that I have a 10-year-old boy who expresses concern for his younger sister. Their relationship in this regard is often reciprocal. She’s concerned for him too. As for her not being ready, how can you assess the developmental readiness of my child through a computer screen? They self-weaned. They moved out of our bed when it was an opportune time. She’s headed to camp with a great sense of pride in herself for being ready. And we think she is.

Underlying many of these comments is a transactional assumption about camp: You go to camp for X and you get Y. We pay the camp thousands of dollars and the camp gives my kids greater independence.

Well, here’s the real transactional experience that I’m paying for: my independence. I need a break from all of this super awesome parenting. I need a break from their sweet little faces always next to mine, asking for kisses or nose rubs or telling me that my breath smells like coffee.

I have no real goals for them regarding this camp experience. I don’t think they have any goals for themselves. They’re welcome to make life-long friends or not. They’re welcome to figure out how to regulate the shower nozzle or not. They’re welcome to cry themselves to sleep each night or figure out how to cope. Whatever works for them, works for me. And in any case, I’ll be miles away in Jerusalem, enjoying that expensive ticket to 12 days of freedom and independence.

And to that kind woman who said: “I do think the concern of the 10-year-old for the 7-year-old is very sweet!” And, “I’m sure they will be fine, please let us know how it works out.” I say to you: You’re awesome. Send me your email and we’ll chat.

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