Siblings are harder to read than kids who’re just friends. Siblings have had their entire lives to build up dynamics that are deep and have shared understandings of their rules for their relationship that may or may not make sense to an outsider (healthy or not).
Oscar and Rudy were no exception. This wasn’t the first time I’d met them and I’d already seen and been warned that they fight. A lot. Today, S was swinging on the tire swing, doing tricks and seeing what different ways he could use it. He narrated his tricks loudly within my earshot, which I took as an invitation to be his audience, so I was sitting on the edge of the swing area looking on. First, he stood on one side to get the swing to flip up, next, he stuck his head through the middle – which looked to the viewer like a reverse groundhog head popping down out of a hole, and then he stuck his feet in the inner tire and lay his body across the top facing up with his hands out. His creativity led him to fall off at one point and need to walk away for a few minutes but he came right back and started all his tricks again.
Then, his younger brother Rudy waltzed up.
Rudy clambered onto the swing while Oscar said, “Rudy! I’m using it right now”
Rudy: “It doesn’t look like you’re using it.”
Oscar: “I am! I want to use it alone!”
Rudy: “There’s room for me to use it with you!”
Reasonable all around, I’d say. Until Oscar started trying to shove Rudy off – since his spoken arguments weren’t being effective! I stepped closer to keep an eye on it. It almost looked like wrestling: they were both laughing as they shoved each other. Oscar tried to push Rudy’s feet off and Rudy tried to stay on. I tried to get a read on it by saying, “I’m not sure if you’re play fighting or real fighting.” To which Oscar said “real fighting” and Rudy said “play fighting” and Oscar was giggling the whole time. As it progressed Oscar’s shoves got harder and Rudy’s kicks more pointed. I was uncertain, but it started looking like too much, and since I normally step in at any physical aggression I decided to intervene.
I told Rudy I wouldn’t let him kick his brother. After some negotiation he got off, but not to cede the swing; he came back with a metal pipe to ram Oscar with. I stopped that too and Rudy’s focus switched from getting a turn on the swing to getting me to let go so he could hit his brother with the pole. I felt over my head and doubtful of my practice but unable to see a way out. In the end, Rudy got kicked in the face and ran away. Oscar left soon after. No one seemed pleased with how it went down, least of all me. Nothing like that sinking feeling of having messed up but not knowing how it happened! Upon some quick in-the-moment reflection, I decided I shouldn’t have stepped in. Neither boy had looked to me to help them out. This was a new site with new kids and I hadn’t quite calibrated to it all yet.
When I saw Oscar walking by the hay bales alone a little later I saw my opportunity to make it right. I went up to him and apologized for my bumbling in before. I said how I saw that he’d been enjoying coming up with swing tricks alone and I wish he had been able to keep doing that. He said, “It’s okay. We [him and his brother] fight all the time.” I responded that I think I probably should have just let them fight and he agreed with a shrug. It wasn’t much but I felt we’d made a connection.
Later that day Oscar was back on the swing alone and continuing his trick work. I was watching again and Rudy came over again. I resolved not to intervene this time. Oscar and Rudy began to fight over the swing again and for a few minutes they pushed and shoved and argued just like before. To my surprise, a few minutes later Oscar agreed to Rudy’s suggestion to do two-person tricks. They played that way for a long while.
Later, Rudy left again, leaving Oscar on the swing and me still stationed as his audience. Oscar paused his tricks and talked to me from the swing about all sorts of things: his dog, medieval knights, school. He talked as if I were a friend now.
The relationship between a playworker and child is unique. It’s one of trust and earned respect (as opposed to the kind of “respect” that is actually obedience that adults usually demand from children). I felt the beginning of an authentic relationship with Oscar start, one where we weren’t adult and child but person and person. I think that by allowing Oscar to see my thought process that day he came to see me as a real person that he could work with. I also think that by my apologizing to him and ceding power to him he was able to be more flexible and gracious later when faced with the same decision about his brother wanting to join him. Trust begets trust.