Meghan Cox Gurdon: Sibling skirmishing turns a car ride into war by other means

Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"What did you say?"

"I wasn't talking to you."

"Well, I wasn't talking to you!"

"Sheesh, calm down."

"I am calm!"

"Oh, right, you're calm. That's why you're screaming."

"I am not screaming! Why are you so rude? I can't believe how mean you sounded: 'I wasn't talking to you.' "

"You said the exact same thing to me!"

"I did not!"

"Yes you did, you said, 'I wasn't talking to you.' "

"Well, I wasn't! Anyway, I didn't say it in a mean way -- "

Ah, there's nothing like the smell of pyrotechnics first thing in the morning.

Strictly speaking, it was not the very first thing -- we'd all had breakfast, and most of us were now in the car, en route to schools. But the sudden eruption of conflict made it feel like the first thing; one's very skin felt sensitive and vulnerable, as though the angry words that were flying past might pierce and lodge themselves.

I pulled the car over and parked on the shoulder of the road, a thousand lectures swirling in my head. The children fell silent. A few droplets of rain smacked the front windshield. It was that kind of morning: Even the sky was teary.

"She was -- "

"He shouldn't -- "

"Shhh," I said, turning around in the driver's seat. There were noncombatants in the car, too. They looked at me.

Was I going to yell? Cry? Hand down a terrible edict?

Demand that everyone behave more kindly? Plead with the belligerent parties to forgive one another, for heaven's sake, and to knock off the bickering?

I wanted to do all these things simultaneously, to be honest, but none of them seemed to quite fit the situation. So after a moment of silence, I just pulled the car back on to the road, and we continued on our way.

It was a quiet ride after that. By the time I made the return journey to retrieve everyone at the end of the day, the incident, so far as I could tell, had either been forgotten -- or slipped into invisible dossiers that each child would be able to consult in the face of future outrages. (Remember the time when you ... ? I was so mad that day when ... !)

It sometimes feel like a handicap, not having had siblings when I was growing up. My children will occasionally point out that I simply can't understand the dynamics between them. I have no instinctive grasp of why they are compelled to compete the way they do; why infinitesimal marginal differences between portions of cake take on the magnitude of sequestration; why one child's talent in a particular area threatens any other child who might have a similar interest.

The invisible and continuous flow of rivalry, even among and between siblings who generally get along well, is a foreign thing for me. Experience has taught me something, though: Any relationship with a bit of friction only gets worse when you seal it inside a car on a rainy day.

When I mentioned this to a friend the other day, she laughed and told me a war story of her own. One rainy day, she too had to pull the car over to separate a pair of battling siblings. Her son and daughter had been pretending that they each had a candy factory, and within minutes, they were actually hitting each other in their fury and disagreement. What was the issue? Whether pretend candy could give you a pretend stomachache.

To paraphrase Clausewitz, car travel is the continuation of war by other means.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at

View article comments Leave a comment