Nina was watching her two adorable grandchildren in the park one afternoon: Ari, 5, and Shira, 9. Ari was playing on the jungle gym; Shira sat with her savta (Granny Nina) on the bench. Somehow, they got chatting. Nina was relaxed, enjoying the moment, not being particularly attentive when she heard Shira saying, “I hate him, I really hate him.”

Suddenly,She knew that she had to listen without criticism Nina became alert, present. She knew she needed to listen non-critically and try understand what Shira was saying, though she found this really hard to do.

“Well, maybe at times you don’t like him. He can be annoying.”

“No, no, I really hate him; you don’t know what it’s like. I always have to play with him. He’s always around, and I get told that because I’m older, I have to take care of him. I also need some space.”

She was crying, little tears oozing out the corner of her eyes. For a few minutes, Nina felt Shira’s frustration. She realized that for Shira, this was real, hard stuff.

Shira continued: “And he’s really strong; he gets mad and hurts me. He’s not cute anymore.”

Nina’s grandson, Ari, held a special place in her heart. She had seen him every week since his birth—not to mention Shabbat, holidays and summer days in between—but he needed a lot of attention, time and energy. Sadly, Nina’s son (Shira and Ari’s parents) was divorced, so she often took care of the kids without their mom being present.

Hadn’t she also used Shira’s help in taking care of him? Hadn’t she been relieved when they were “playing together,” leaving her off the hook for a while? Having only one parent at a time present to take care of the kids—plus Nina sometimes, had created the extra expectation on Shira to help with Ari.

Nina took a deep breath, listening and thinking and being with Shira, treasuring that they could have real communication, even as uncomfortable as this one had just been.

She thought of her relationship with Lara, her older and only sibling.They lived in different countries and didn’t see each other often at all, but they had a strong connection and mutual caring. Lara had come for Nina’s youngest son’s wedding; it had been so special. Their relationship had its challenges regarding different lifestyles and views, dynamics of Nina feeling intimidated and needing her older sister’s approval, balancing each of their needs in the relationship, but the connection was precious to both of them.

Seeing Shira’s conflict with Ari made Nina realize how primal and intense the sibling relationship can be, and how interactions can bring out the worst and best in each of them.

Nina was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8), where “Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.” Such an extreme and violent act! Should we therefore not be surprised at our own intense feelings towards our siblings, or when we witness this in our family or others?

WhatWhat do we do with such intense feelings? do we do with such intense (and intensely negative) feelings? One thing we clearly do not want to do is condemn our child/grandchild for having such emotions. We don’t want him/her to feel criticized and internalize feelings of shame that would make them seem like a bad person for having these feelings. We want to engender self-worth and self-love, which is the basis of being able to love and give to others.

When Solomon became the king of Israel, he asked G‑d to bless him with a lev shomeah, an “understanding heart.”1 We need to understand our own heart and then use this compassionate understanding to appreciate the struggles of others, including our siblings. All feelings are natural and part of being human. We can accept and understand ourselves, but still strive to look beyond negativity not by denying our feelings, but by feeling whole enough and choosing to embrace the other even in the face of our own struggles.

Nina said to Shira, “I think I understand what you’re saying—how hard it can get, and how it feels like he’s always there with you, bothering you and needing you. This feels like a heavy burden to carry.” She paused. “Imagine, though, how you would feel if anything would happen to him—if he falls or gets lost. I’ve seen how you worry about him. It’s actually because you’re such a caring sister that he irritates you. You feel like you have to take care of him, and sometimes, this is too much for you. But it’s because you love him so much.”

“You know, I also have one sibling, and she is the only person in the world who comes from the same mom and dad as me, so it’s really a very special relationship.”

Shira looked at Nina and seemed to take in what she heard. She skipped away to play; her skip seemed a little lighter. Shira had been heard, not silenced or censured for what she was feeling, and this was calming. At the same time, Nina had tried to show Shira that underneath her frustration there really was a deep love for her brother; she tried to help her tap into this.

Aside from showing Shira that she is allowed to feel and express herself, Nina was also trying to encourage her to appreciate her little brother—to value the relationship, to be good to him, to treasure their unique bond. Pointing this out in a gentle, subtle way was a step towards hopefully strengthening their relationship, a building block for their long-term connection to each other as a place of belonging and source of support.

TooToo often, siblings don’t value this relationship often, siblings don’t value this relationship or work towards improving it. Nina noticed that Shira seemed a little kinder to Ari that afternoon. Nina knew that this was not a “one-off” conversation that would fix things, it was the beginning of an ongoing conversation that she hoped they could dip into from time to time.

Nina’s interaction with Shira solidified three aspects of healthy parenting.

- Be prepared to hear and accept difficult feelings from your kids/grandkids, even though this can be a challenge, and validate that these feelings are very real and sometimes painful for them.

- Tap into their deeper need to do good, be good, and that they are good, whole and perfect in their essence.

- Take the opportunity to teach your child/grandchild a life lesson in a gentle, loving way.

Parenting/grandparenting is a dual process of relationship-building and teaching. The relationship needs to be strong to earn the “right” to teach, and only in a strong relationship will we ever get to know what our kids really feel. They need to know they are safe and not judged if they are to share with us. Great effort needs to go into building the connection—creating a platform and bond so that sharing will happen. And teaching, especially from grandparents, needs to be subtle, infrequent and always from a place of love.