“From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride.”
–The New Science of Siblings, by Jeffrey Kluger
Our daughter Bella was three when we brought Micah home from the hospital. She took one look at the bundled baby, and had a complete melt down. We spent the next 30 minutes coaxing her out of the bedroom closet, where she’d sat in the dark weeping, heart broken, hands cupped over her ears, eyes sealed closed.
I’m an only child. I grew up in a large, quiet house along the Long Island Sound and spent hours and hours playing in my bedroom alone. I marched in one-girl parades, played teacher with imaginary pupils, and hosted tea parties for imaginary guests. I told my secrets to a journal, and every gift under the Christmas tree had my name on it. I suppose you could say I was spoiled. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. It felt lonely. Without buffers between myself and my parents, I was both their favorite child and their favorite target.
I got married young, and it became very clear how little I understood about family relationships– Without a brother around, males were a complete mystery. Who knew they could be so messy? And without a sister, basic lessons about sharing, jealousy, forgiveness, or establishing healthy boundaries were vague concepts it would take me years to learn. I was ill-equipped for conflict. Fortunately, I married a patient husband who grew up with three siblings and knew the ropes. We’ve been married for nineteen years, mostly because he taught me the basics of conflict resolution: communication and forgiveness.
A Canadian study reported sibs between the ages of 2 and 4 fight about every 10 minutes. Much to mom’s dismay, sibs are wired to duke it out. But as they get older, they also learn how to settle arguments, cooperate, and forgive. But what happens when siblings don’t share a common language?
When Micah was four, I started learning American Sign Language with full force. I enrolled in classes, went to the silent dinners, and forced myself to practice, do homework, study for tests and participate in awkward social gathering with strangers. There were language and cultural barriers I forced myself to cross, because when it became evident that Micah’s primary language was ASL, our relationship demanded nothing less than fluency. Today, I am still not fluent. Learning a new language is an on-going journey for me.
For Bella, however, her younger brother was a nightmare at worse and a nuisance at best. I remember an incident in Publix that pretty much defined her young life– She and I were stuck in the fruit section while Micah flailed on the floor, before he had language to express himself. He was three, melting down in hysteric tears, howls, and violent kicks. I felt helpless to stop him. “Mommy, I’m so embarrassed,” Bella said. “I’m embarrassed too,” I said. But that wasn’t good enough. I felt like I was failing them both.
One time, Bella crawled on her belly to grab her cat who had hidden under the bed, when I heard her scream in excruciating pain. I came running from across the house to find half her body under the bed and Micah pulling at her legs. He was laughing, using all his strength to drag her out from under the bed. To him, it was a hilarious game. Meanwhile, her earing had become stuck to the carpet and her ear split wide open from his tugging.
She had screamed and cried for him to stop, but he kept pulling and yanking. Try to explain to a seven-year-old that it was an accident, because he can’t hear. There aren’t many memories like these, but there were enough to plant seeds of resentment.
Micah’s behavior improved as his language developed, but years of miscommunication had already branded him negatively in her mind. So when it came time for her to learn sign language, she wasn’t interested.
For class projects, I tried to encourage her to explore deaf themes, deaf history, or ASL, but she was reluctant. “Why does everything have to be about Micah?” she said, and I understood. Much of my attention and focus had been on him, and if I was not careful, their sibling relationship would suffer. But how can hearing siblings have relationships with deaf or hard of hearing siblings if they don’t communicate well? Where communication is weak, relationships suffer.
I had to tread lightly when it came to Bella and ASL. I couldn’t force her to take classes or manipulate her with guilt trips. Instead, we participated in deaf family events. We played Signing Time videos in the house and encouraged her to make friends with the other deaf or hard of hearing girls in our community. One of our greatest gifts came when Bella became friends with a hard of hearing older girl who was kind, intelligent, friendly and fluent in ASL. For this friend, Bella was willing to practice signing, and we encouraged it. I credit this friendship for Bella’s change of heart about sign language, and I am eternally grateful, because now she can communicate with her brother. They still have typical sibling conflicts, but they also have their own sibling bond.
I admit, Bella is sometimes the go-between with baby sitters, family members, or peers. But we’re careful not to burden her too heavily, and to encourage her own identity. Now that her ASL has dramatically improved, her relationship with her brother has also improved.
Favoritism between siblings is not just a d/hh issue. But when there is a child with special needs, parents need to be particularly sensitive to siblings who may feel like a second-tier child. I try my best not to ignore her feelings, and to be intentional about the time and attention I give to her.
I understand that having a d/hh sibling is complicated, but I believe effective communication is the basis for strong sibling relationships. As a result, the sibling of a d/hh child can develop maturity, tolerance, empathy, patience, and flexibility. I’m proud to see those traits developing in Bella.
I’m so thankful for organizations like Family Center on Deafness, which encourage sibling participation in after school programs, field trips, and summer activities. There, hearing and d/hh children interact, and hearing siblings learn they are not alone in their feelings. New friendships are developed and signing becomes a rewarding activity. The skills they learn will lend to stronger communication at home.
I have heard many deaf and hard of hearing adults express heartache over rifts they feel with their hearing siblings. Closing the language barrier is the only way to mend those painful feelings.
Siblings are rehearsal tools for adult relationships, and it’s my hope that as my children age, their conflicts with fade, and their bond will strengthen.