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Sibling horseplay good for brother and sister


THE TWO WORDS I dread more than any others are: "Hockey fight!"

Every evening after supper, those words clang through my house like a referee's bell, announcing another round.

It means my 16-year-old son, having failed to burn off enough energy during seven hours of school and three hours of sports, has once again attacked his 14-year-old sister, who has learned to hold her own in a manner that would make Darwin blush.

As I clean up the dinner dishes, I can hear them rumbling above me like wildebeests around a watering hole. After about 10 minutes it is over, and each retires to a bedroom as if nothing had happened.

My overwrought husband and I sometimes fear the rough-and-tumble nature of their sibling relationship will bear rotten fruit in adulthood: She will marry an abusive man and he will pound women for sport.

We fear they will assume that men and women relate best through wrestling holds and fingernail scratches, despite the fact that their parents have not modeled that kind of interaction.

Thank goodness for the patient counsel of Dr. Carol Eagle, head of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center.

"A girl with brothers is usually tough, in the best sense of the word. She is more rugged when it comes to teasing. She understands that boys play by different rules," Eagle writes reassuringly in Daughters newsletter

"If she falls for a rough guy, pretty quickly she will realize, 'This is ridiculous. I had this growing up,' " she adds in a telephone interview.

Oldest brothers beat up on little brothers, too, she says, and one can hardly blame them. "They were the only child for some number of years and then this darling little thing shows up and everyone makes a fuss."

But I came from a family of four girls and my husband, from a family of four boys, so neither of us has a script for how opposite-sex siblings are supposed to behave toward each other.

My husband thinks having a sister means boys have an in-house dancing teacher, but Eagle says the relationship between brothers and sisters is richer than that.

Boys are not mysterious to a girl who has a brother. She has not only seen him naked sometime in their toddler past, she has seen the backside of all his machismo: the sadness, the clumsiness, the vulnerability.

His buddies also serve to demystify the opposite sex, and any practice she gets dealing with them will serve her well in future relationships with men, says Eagle, author of "All That She Can Be."

Eagle also advises against running to my daughter's rescue when "hockey fights" break out in the demilitarized zone between my children's bedrooms, unless, of course, there is blood or broken bones.

"Remember that what you see may not be the whole picture." It is possible that girls, who are generally better verbally than boys, needle their brothers to the point of exasperation.

And besides, your intervention teaches your daughter that she needs to be rescued - or worse, than she can manipulate both her brother and you.

Above all, Eagle advises, be patient. She has seen in her practice and in families of her acquaintance the extraordinary reliance between brothers and sisters that develops almost as soon as one leaves the crowded nest.

"It seems to be that there has been a wonderful movement in this country toward recognizing that sibling relationships are so important," Eagle told me. "The constant contact I am seeing is fabulous.

"More than dancing or throwing a ball," Eagle says, "brothers and sisters learn from each other how to relate to the opposite sex in a more comfortable way.

"She is learning a kind of confidence that will help her as a young woman. And one of these days, he is going to wake up and realize she isn't such a bad kid and that's going to strengthen his future relationships with women."

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