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We have five teenagers between the ages of 17 and 14. That’s Joe at 17 (Suzy’s), Morgan at 16 (Chris’), Jack at 15 (Suzy’s), Luke at 15 (Chris’ and just 15 days behind Jack), and Brady bringing up the rear at 14 (Chris’). It is hectic. It is loud. It is expensive. And it is usually fun.

After being around our crew, someone will often ask if they have always gotten along so well. The short answer is NO. If someone hasn’t been around us all together, they will ask how they all get along. My answer to this one is usually “Just like real siblings.”

When we got married, our kids were between 6 and 9 years old. We had Chris’ kids (Morgan, Luke & Brady) every other weekend and on Tuesday nights. Jack and Joe (Suzy’s kids) were with us every other weekend and every Monday and Tuesday.  So we either had all FIVE or none at all. (I’m not going to lie; there were some pretty fun weekends under both circumstances!) We lived in a 3 bedroom, two bath condo in Bourbonnais at the time. Those days of close quarters and timed showers are still some of my favorite memories.

Wedding Day! January 28, 2012

One of my not-so-favorite memories was how often children between the ages of 6 and 9 told on each other. It was all-consuming, and we were losing our minds. One of my teacher friends told me about her classroom “Tattle Jar.” The premise is simple: When a child does something you don’t appreciate, don’t agree with or you think is wrong, you write it down and put it in the jar. Once a week you, we review all the “tattles” together and talk about how to address them. By the end of the week, (hopefully) nobody really cares about any of the injustices. Most were merely a big deal in the moment.

It literally took two hours to go through what is and is not tattle jar-worthy. If you are bleeding, don’t put that in the tattle jar. Come to us for help. If someone hurt your feelings, write it down and put it in the jar. If you are NOT directly involved in the incident you can NOT tattle ABOUT the incident. Then we went through 1,245 “what ifs”. IF Luke pees in your fish bowl, you can put it in the tattle jar. (In fairness, that actually did happen, but not until they were much older.)

The tattle jar lasted 3 weeks. For one, we failed to realize that six-year-old Brady couldn’t spell well enough to write down his tattles. So he had to come to us with the tattle to help him write it. That usually resulted in us trying our best NOT to bust up laughing while spelling some inappropriate body part situation. The sibling he was tattling on definitely would NOT help him write it down. There were a couple of kids who just really didn’t want to go to the effort to write anything down. Were they mad? Sure! But there was too long of a wait between the crime being done and the jar being emptied so a sibling could receive punishment. It just wasn’t worth it. Jack and Morgan embraced the tattle jar, with an average of 22 tattles each per week for 3 weeks. Once they realized how silly they really were and that you didn’t get a prize for the most tattles, they stopped tattling too.

The tattle jar isn’t the secret weapon, but the concept behind it- writing out their feelings- has helped the kids navigate relationships even into the teenage years. I wish all of their issues now could be solved simply by writing them down and coming back to them at the end of the week.

Our family dynamic is a work in progress with some classic, but not-so-inspiring moments, like the first first family canoe trip. Jack and Morgan had canoed twice as far as anyone else by pinballing down the banks of the river. Brady sat in the middle of Chris and I, giving unsolicited instructions, which were not appreciated. When our canoe came to a low spot, we hit the bottom, dumping Chris and I into about 4 inches of water and rocks. Soaked and surprised, I was quickly informed that the person in front (me) was to inform the person in back (him) when we were going to be in water too shallow to pass so we could get out and carry our canoe. (Let me tell you how fun that part is!)  In turn, I informed the back (Chris) that the water had NOT been too shallow for the front of the boat (me) to pass. Apparently that was just a back of the boat issue. No one was looking for critiques and subtle jabs in that moment, yet we dished them anyway.

The icing on the cake that day was looking over at the older boys’ canoe in time to hear Joe yell to Luke, “I wish my mom had never married your dad. You can’t even help paddle!” Without saying a word, Chris smiled and tossed me a beverage. Down the river we continued.

Joe and Luke had to change canoe partners later that day. But, fast forward eight years, and they now share the bedrooms in the basement. We call it their fraternity: Sigma Tau Beta, also known as “Smelly Teen Boys”. They ride to school together, arriving just in time to make it to their first class. They also stay up later than anyone wants to know playing Xbox and generally avoiding homework.

At Christmas time this past year, we were sitting around discussing what we were most looking forward to in 2020. Luke told us the one thing he isn’t looking forward to is Joe going to college and leaving him. It will be a toss up whether dropping off Joe for freshman year will be harder for me or for Luke. Those two have come a long way.

Each of the kids have different relationships with one another. Luke befriends Morgan when he wants to borrow a sweatshirt or her car, but generally complains about all of her “drama”. Brady and Luke had a wrestling match in the living room this winter that ended in throwing actual punches. Luke had done a lot of smack talking to Brady and he finally had enough. (In full disclosure, we watched fists fly in amazement until Chris had to jump in and separate them.)

Morgan is the mother hen of the family. She transports siblings to practice, comes through by running out for supplies for school projects someone forgot about, and makes it possible for her brothers to get a few hours with their “girl” when mom and dad forbid them from leaving the house. She and Jack leave (what feels like hours) hours before school starts so they can grab a donut or Starbucks and still have time to be social in the halls before class.

Jack and Luke are true teammates, and we often refer to them as the “fake twins.” They start on all the same sports teams and have generally hung around the same group of friends. As they’ve gone through high school, it’s been interesting to watch them each come into their own crowd yet still maintain their own friendship. I can’t imagine another pair of siblings who could do life like these two. They just complement each other. We would be telling a different story if it was Joe and Morgan who ended up in the same grade!

As the youngest, Brady can connect with any of his siblings. He really looks up to Joe. I think he admires how hard Joe has had to work for the sports that come naturally to a few of the others. It meant a lot to Brady when Jack and Joe took a day off school to watch him wrestle in the state tournament last year. Brady and Morgan have a special connection. He confides in her and she tries to keep him in line before we have to step in. We just wish he would listen to her advice a little more often! He’s relied on Jack’s forgiving nature a few times and, when push comes to shove (sometimes literally), he and Luke will always be there for each other, too. Our baby of the family is always looking for the spotlight. So the older four collectively encourage his attention-seeking antics in front of their friends. Whether he will admit it yet or not, I think Brady just wants ALL of his siblings to be proud of him.

Chris and I share the belief that most of life comes back to relationships. We value authenticity and tried to teach the kids how to develop genuine and strong relationships with each other. We know that it is never going to be perfect. They are not always going to get along. Sometimes our living room will look like a scene from Fight Club. But they’ve developed the skills to work through the challenges ahead and, at the end of the day, emerge as one family. We know this because they have done it together time and time again.

Either they work through it or I will bring back the Tattle Jar.