February 26, 2021
By Ekta R. Garg
One of the absolute pleasures of the kids being so close in age is watching them bond. They tease one another, they often walk through the house with arms slung over one another’s shoulders, and they’re in one another’s rooms more often than in their own. (Fourteen would argue her sister is more guilty of this, but I’ve seen the teen enter the tween’s room many times too. :>)
Fourteen often jokes about leaving her sister behind or doing the 21st-century equivalent of selling her to gypsies. I know she’s joking…most of the time. When we brought Twelve home from the hospital, my now-teenager plopped herself on the floor—all of a self-assured 2 years old at the time—and demanded with plaintive cries that we give her the baby. The video and pictures from that time show a child growing exasperated with the adults around her. Why, you can see her thinking, did they not get it?
Twelve, of course, adores her older sister. Oh, she complains about her. Makes fun of her. Rolls her eyes in melodramatic fashion as she states just how melodramatic Fourteen is being. But there’s no doubt that she’d follow her sister to the ends of the earth.
In the last year, then, we’ve started relying on Fourteen to help smooth ruffled feathers when Twelve gets upset about something. She may not realize this, but as time goes on we plan to use her more and more as the buffer. The mediator.
The person privileged enough to listen to Twelve’s bellyaching.
A prime example of this happened earlier this week. The temperatures were lovely for February—sunny and in the 30s—and Twelve was in school in person (at her school they go three weeks online, one week face to face.) My social child loves her friends, and even though she spends a fair amount of time chatting with them online on a regular basis, she values most the time she gets when she can see them without the barrier of a screen.
On Tuesday, as Twelve tells it, during study hall she went outside with her friends. They ran around for a little while and then hung out and talked. When I picked her up from school, she was as chatty as a magpie. Her normal self, when she’s had a great day.
A few hours later, her mood had turned upside down. She spent hours doing her homework and was clearly frustrated with it. She worked with a friend over via video chat, which helped, but she had a pile of things left on her to-do list. Not everything required the friend’s help, and not everything was even that hard or due the next day. But they were time consuming.
I finally dragged her away from her backpack just as she was packing it up almost three hours after she started.
“Why don’t you come and watch TV with us for a little bit?”
“I have to practice my cello,” she said in a sullen tone.
“I know, but you’ve been working ever since you came home. Just take a break for a little bit. You can practice after dinner.”
“After dinner?” she asked as if I’d told her to spend the rest of the night walking on her hands instead of her feet.
“Yes, after dinner. You only have to practice it for ten minutes for the practice challenge, right?”
“So, ten minutes is nothing. Come watch TV, eat dinner, and then go practice. You’ll feel a lot better, trust me.”
She sighed, she rolled her eyes, she mentioned how she didn’t like doing things “like that,” but she came with me.
The practice challenge, by the way, is a challenge her cello teacher sets for all his students every February. Basically, he challenges the kids to practice for 10 minutes every day of the month. At the end, the kids who complete it get a little certificate. It’s more about the bragging rights, though, which he highly encourages (in a healthy way.)
Normally one to practice for 20 minutes about three or four times a week, February is the time when Twelve gets away with less practice time on days like these. If she can do the full 20, great. If not, she hits her 10 minutes and calls it a day.
She complains about practicing the cello at all, but she knows that doesn’t get very far with us. So she’s made it a part of her routine, and she has a set order of when she likes to do things. Generally we don’t push her to change her methods too much. She gets good grades and gets her practicing done consistently. On days like this one, though, when she was clearly in need of some time away from school things and needed to do something fun, I push her out of the comfort zone of her routine and nudge her to interrupt the cycle of frustration.
She came and watched TV with the family for about 30 minutes; then it was time for dinner. As we ate, my husband asked Twelve about the day and whether she had any study hall time in which she could have worked on some of her homework. She got a little defensive, saying she really needed the time with her friends.
I’d hoped that TV and eating would help shift her mood, and it did a little but not by much. After she put her plate in the sink, she muttered about needing to practice and made her way upstairs. Fourteen just shook her head.
“That’s why she should use her study hall time to work on homework,” she said. “I do. I work on homework and spend time with my friends and get my stuff done and have fun all in the same day.”
“Maybe you can talk to her,” I suggested.
“She’ll listen more if she hears it from you,” my husband added.
“I did,” Fourteen said, sensing right away that her sister’s homework issue was about to become her problem.
“Try again,” I said.
She didn’t respond, and I figured she’d pull the favorite teen excuse “Oh-I-forgot-to-do-that” if I asked her about it later. I decided to go ahead with doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I’m a firm believer in the fact that we give our problems our all in trying to solve them, but on some days the best way to solve them is just to go to bed and start over the next day.
Everyone else drifted to their rooms, and the girls’ lights turned off. I finished cleaning up and shut off the kitchen lights then went to Twelve’s room to say good night. I got a stiff “good night” in return. Fourteen was a little more jovial.
When I went to our room, my husband grinned and handed me a note card.
“Look what I found on the floor,” he said.
I read it, not sure at first what I was looking at. Someone had written messages on it; some were in pencil, some in ink. The handwriting was different between the two, and I realized what had happened.
In addition to all the other inside jokes and things they share, the girls set up a mail system between their rooms. Fourteen has a little mailbox with an actual flag that someone gave her as part of a Christmas gift. Twelve has a tiny stocking on her wall. They leave one another messages in the mailbox and stocking from time to time, and although I knew they did this I’d never seen one of the messages. Until now.
The exchange went like this. The spelling and syntax are all original; I haven’t changed anything. (And if you’re wondering about the first line, Twelve decided on a whim to learn Spanish using Duolingo.)
“I’m sorry. I just had a no bueno day, and I feel bad, so, yeah.”
“I just had a day of confusing emotions and now I can’t decide how I feel.”
“Our parents made me tell you about the study hall thing.”
“I said I didn’t want to. You can guess what happened.”
“Well, now I’m mad at them. Great. Juuust great.”
“Anger is futile. Don’t worry be happy.”
I laughed out loud. Really, I did. But it wasn’t a mean laugh, and only a small part of it was, “Oh, they’re funny.” It was mostly a delighted one. Because it’s moments like these that tell me we’re doing something right. We’re helping these girls bind ties so tight that no matter where they go or what kind of day they have, they’ll always be there for one another. And even their parents, who they’ll probably get mad at, can’t stop them from supporting each other.