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Why I Let My Children Work It Out Without Me

Children riding bikes together
Photograph by ThinkStock

It’s a Sunday morning in January in Los Angeles—blue skies, sun’s out, birds chirping in trees. Inside my house, the 8-year-old emits a scream that could shatter eardrums.

“Mommy! Momm-eee! Tell him to stop it!”

“Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah,” taunts the 13-year-old.

“Aagh!” screams his little sister.

“You’re an idiot,” he sneers.

There was a time when this boy couldn’t wait for his little sister to be born. But that was eight years ago, and times have changed. They fight about everything, down to the way they look at each other. I have adult friends who still harbor childhood grudges against their siblings. I don’t want this to be my son and daughter.

So this Sunday, I strong-arm them into an act of cooperation. We’re going to the farmer’s market a mile away—the dog and me on foot, the kids on their bikes.

“Be nice,” I say to the oldest, as he and his sister head out. “Keep her pace. Remember she’s only 8.”

But I know that’s not enough. “If I arrive and find out there were any fights, no waffles from the waffle stand.”

I remind him: 'Be nice. Take care of her.'

That does the trick. They bike over in peace, and we have an incident-free market visit to boot. As we leave, I hand them their backpacks filled with produce to carry home. They go to collect their bikes, and I remind him: “Be nice. Take care of her.”

But he’s already walking away, one step ahead of her, waving his hand in the air. He knows, he knows.

About five minutes later, I’m walking back home up a hill when I hear, “Hi, Mom!” It’s my oldest, pulling up beside me on his bike.

“Where’s your sister?” The child is nowhere in sight.

“She’s right behind me,” he says.

So we wait. A minute passes. Two. Three. I crane my neck to look past him down the road, and that’s when I see her, a little figure with a pink backpack, hunched over her bike, which is weaving from one side of the bike lane to the other. I know at a glance that she's crying.

The bike lane is wide, and she’s well within its limits. Still, if she is this far behind, she had to navigate at least one intersection on her own. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened—but I want him to imagine it.

“She’s only 8,” I say to my son. “She can’t keep your pace. Look. You’ve put her in danger.” Cars pass by regularly. She looks pretty small in comparison.

His eyes go wide.

RELATED: How to Keep Siblings From Fighting

Finally she pulls up in front of us, flings herself and the bike down on the sidewalk and sobs into the dirty cement. “I will never go anywhere with him again!” she says. “Ever!”

“I’m sorry,” he says, and tries to pat her back. “Are you OK?”

“Leave me alone!”

She wants to walk back with me. But it’s about three-quarters of a mile to the house. She will cry and complain the entire time. I cringe at the thought.

“Mom,” my son says. “I can ride home with her.”

“I don’t know …”

But he really wants to redeem himself. “I swear, I’ll keep her pace. I won’t let her out of my sight.”

I think: If I say no, and she walks home with me, she will not bike anywhere with him for a long, long time. But if I leave them here, and they figure it out for themselves ...

“OK,” I say. He bends over her. She screams something unintelligible into the sidewalk. I tug on the dog’s leash, and we head home.

When I get there, 15 minutes later, the driveway gate is open. They must have just arrived.

They are laughing. They are high-fiving. They are glowing.

“He promised me 35 minutes on his iPod touch!” she announces. “Thirty minutes for riding home and an extra five because I beat him riding up the hill!”

He grins. “You beat me because I had to carry my backpack and yours the whole way home.”

We’re all grinning. In fact, we’re so thrilled with ourselves we can’t get over it. I hope they remember this morning for a long time to come. I know I will.

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