Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

How Masterly Inactivity Protects Sibling Relationships

September 26, 2018 by Brandy Vencel

Chapter 8 of Your Teenager is Not Crazy starts off with a story of two teenage sisters. The father is driving the girls to school when the older, Jocelyn, realizes she’s forgotten her clarinet. The younger, Jasmine, is immediately enraged:

Are you kidding me? You always do this. Now we’re going to be late. I can’t believe this!

Let’s pause right there.

What did we just learn? Two things:

  1. “You always do this.” Assuming this isn’t a falsehood said in anger, older sister Jocelyn has a character problem: she isn’t responsible with her stuff.
  2. “Now we’re going to be late.” Younger sister Jasmine expects that she will have to reap the consequences of her older sister’s irresponsibility.

The father, narrator of the story, affirms that both 1 and 2 are true. Additionally, he says of his older daughter that she takes a “laissez-faire approach to promptness” and describes further actions that show Jocelyn doesn’t care that she is inconveniencing others. Saying “laissez-faire” makes her flaws sound sophisticated and forgivable, but in the eyes of the younger daughter, her older sister is just selfish, aided and abetted by their parents.

The story goes on, with teen girls yelling at one another, and then Dad yelling, too. The lesson we’re supposed to draw is that parents should take the high road and react peacefully, but talk about missing the point! I mean, yes — it never goes well when I yell, either. But there’s a much deeper issue going on here, and the author just glosses over it by focusing on the idea that we all shouldn’t yell at one another.

Situations like these can breed a lot of resentment in siblings if we’re not careful. Yes, we’re a family. This means we will all regularly be inconvenienced by one another, and it’s good for us to learn to love one another with self-sacrificing love.

But this situation reveals a selfish older daughter who doesn’t need to remember her stuff because her father is willing to turn the car around every time — a daughter who openly admits she doesn’t even care she’s made her younger sister late.

I asked my husband what he would have done.

“Drop her off without her clarinet; she’ll learn.”

Exactly.

Masterly inactivity solves the issues here and creates an environment in which the younger daughter won’t feel the need to yell because there’s nothing to be mad about in the first place. (This is not intended to defend the younger daughter yelling — I am aware that, for the younger daughter, this is an opportunity to practice patience, forgiveness, and right response.)

What is masterly inactivity?

I’ve a one-hour talk about masterly inactivity, proving there’s a lot we could say about it. The aspect of Masterly Inactivity that applies in this particular type of situation is giving children the freedom to fail. The positive way of saying it is let Nature (and natural consequences) be the teacher.

“Children must stand or fall by their own efforts,” Charlotte Mason said.

If a generally responsible child forgets something one time, we might turn around if we can. We’re willing to be inconvenienced. But if a teenager is always forgetting and always late, this has likely developed because he’s been coddled and nagged and indulged for a long, long time.

Here’s the deal: we want our children to grow up to be generally responsible human beings, and we’re not doing them any favors if they are 16-years-old and we’re still rushing in to rescue them when they’re ill prepared. You know how most adults learned to prepare? By reaping the natural consequences of being not prepared!

Masterly inactivity prevents yelling.

In a home where natural consequences do a lot of the teaching, these types of situations aren’t super-charged with emotions. The author characterizes the whole situations as one of the “inevitable battles that arise while living with teens,” which is completely untrue. None of it had to happen, and all of it happened because of how the daughters had been parented over many years. There was nothing inevitable about it.

You forgot your clarinet? I’m so sorry, Honey! I hope your teacher isn’t too hard on you. No yelling necessary. The younger sister isn’t tempted to yell, because she can trust her parents. The parents aren’t tempted to yell, because it’s not their problem, either. This is just a daughter learning to make her way in the world; she’ll be fine.

I hear objections sometimes — But what if she has a big performance? What if this negatively effects her grade? What if? What if?

Let’s turn this around. What if we take this approach when children are younger and the stakes are lower so that they’ve learned to be responsible by the time the big performance rolls around?

I remember when I was 17 and got a speeding ticket. I rushed into my dad’s office, jabbering away about how sorry I was and how this was awful and how I (truly!) thought I was driving the speed limit but had read the wrong sign and on and on and then I realized my dad wasn’t really saying anything.

“I’m just so sorry,” I repeated.

And then he dropped the bomb: I only needed to apologizing to myself because he wasn’t going to be reaping any of the consequences. He calmly and gently made it clear: I would pay for the ticket and I would pay for traffic school. would appear in court (by myself), and I would lose my free time on three weekends because I had to attend traffic school. It really had nothing to do with him.

I was floored. It had never connected in my mind that he wasn’t going to take care of all of it (and I wasn’t an overly coddled child).

It was time to grow up, and so I did all those things: I paid for things and went to things and did all of it by myself.

And I was fine.

And our kids will be fine when they reap their consequences, too.

Masterly inactivity prevents resentment.

This is oft overlooked but oh so important. Imagine if I had taken my traffic ticket to my father and he had asked my younger sister to pay for part of it. Imagine the injustice of such an action! And imagine the resentment it would have bred in my sister.

And yet in the story above, the father is perfectly content letting the younger sister pay for the older sister’s misdeeds. There will naturally be times where the whole family pays the price. (That’s part of being a family.) But a habit of masterly inactivity puts some boundaries around consequences and says that, for the most part, each child pays their own dues. Do you know how much this protects sibling relationships? Generous siblings might even have some compassion and desire to help when they are raised in this sort of context.

But when we demand siblings pay for each other’s faults — when we say that we can’t allow Jocelyn to forget her clarinet while disregarding that Jasmine will be late — we aren’t building an environment for a healthy love relationship between the sisters.

And that, my friends, is a very sad thing.

Get the (almost) weekly digest!

Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

Powered by ConvertKit

20 Comments

  • Reply Robin Morales October 18, 2018 at 11:56 am

    I have three daughters, but only the younger two are close in age. The elder of these was sweetly and politely subversive–some things we caught, some we didn’t–and most of her moves were fueled or enabled by social media. We clamped down as hard as we thought reasonable, and tried to protect the younger from the same activity because the internet and social media is a learning curve for parents, isn’t it? So…how do you handle this one? When a parent learns more through trial and error with the older sibling, about the possibility of negative consequences online and their parenting adapts accordingly, how do you keep it from being viewed as an injustice to the younger? Clear as mud? :/

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 18, 2018 at 2:58 pm

      I don’t know if this will help, but a friend of mine at co-op today was talking about something similar today. It was in regard to a privilege — and activity — rather than a negative thing, but perhaps the principle still applies? When she decided to allow her oldest child to do this certain thing, she told all of the others that this didn’t mean that this was how it would be for them. That in these areas “fairness” isn’t actually having everything the same, but the parents deciding what is best for each child based upon many factors (including what was best for the whole family at the time the decisions were being made, the maturity of each individual child, etc.). I really liked how she said this and thought of it immediately when I read your comment. How is it fair for us to gain wisdom with our experience and *not* allow the younger child to benefit? But it needs, I think, and honest conversation about how we have learned that this is best. One of the benefits of being the youngest child is having parents that know a little more about what they are doing. 😉

  • Reply Catie October 7, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    This is SO GOOD. I need to remember to let things play out naturally whenever I can.

  • Reply Reina Micco September 29, 2018 at 11:18 am

    Yes, this spot on. I remember in high school when I was able to drive myself, and my sister wanted to ride with me and she wasn’t ready because she would take her time getting ready, so I went to my mom since she was never ready. My mom told her if she isn’t ready when I’m ready to leave then she can ride the bus. Needless to say she started to be ready on time. ?

  • Reply Laurie September 27, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for this great reminder!

  • Reply Leanne September 26, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    Yes your principles are correct, but as families we are not islands and we live in community through sports, church, home school group, friends etc. I am not sure how old your children are but once you have adults children and you have spent 18 plus years trying to parent by the principles you have taught on these pages you might like to take the time and reflect on the harshness of statements like – “None of it had to happen, and all of it happened because of how the daughters had been parented over many years. There was nothing inevitable about it.”

    There comes a time where children have to learn to respond with grace and wisdom to imperfect situations and not blame their responses or conflicts on their parents or their parenting. That girl in your story is going to meet lots of people outside her family as an adult at work, church etc who will be just like her sister and it will be her will and character that will determine what happens in situations that adversely effect her – not her parents “parenting”!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 26, 2018 at 3:02 pm

      Interesting. You sound like you are worried that if the parents weren’t catering to the older child, the younger child wouldn’t know how to deal with difficult people later in life. Is that what you mean?

      • Reply Leanne September 26, 2018 at 8:59 pm

        I am not sure the issue is catering to the needs of one particular child over the other – Or one sibling paying for the faults of another. As parents yes we want to foster good habits – And yes natural consequences are extremely effective and you are right, “ I’m not doing them any favors if they are 16-years-old and I’m still rushing in to rescue them when they’re ill prepared. ” I agree it is much better to make then reap what they sow in many instances like these and the earlier they learn that the better. However in the example you are critiquing I am not sure that the author has missed the point – “Why do you fight and argue among yourselves? Isn’t it because of your sinful desires?”
        James 4:1. You could also say that the complaining daughter is just as selfish and she needs habit training also, as – she is complaining and arguing, she is not giving thanks in all circumstances, her response is causing fighting and arguing – all of these are sinful from a biblical perspective. If in these circumstances we say that a parent is to blame for these responses we would all fail as parents. In fact parents should be able to wisely choose whether in such an instance they will turn around and make the younger daughter late or alternatively make the older daughter go without – and if they deem it right in this instant to turn back and make the younger daughter late, this may result in the younger daughter learning to respond with respect to her parents. And this is a valuable lesson and will result in her being blessed as honouring parents is in fact the first command with a blessing.

        Hope this clarifies my comment – which by the way was not meant to be contrary, as I do love reading your posts each week.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel September 27, 2018 at 9:50 am

          It does clarify — thank you! And I don’t disagree. I mean, in the sense that yes, we are all sinful and selfish and that is where arguments come from. Interestingly enough, the author didn’t address that either and instead jumps into a discussion of the limbic system!

          It sounds like maybe you read this beginning section differently than I did. I was surprised he used this particular story as an example for fighting/arguing/freaking out. The way I read it, he said multiple things that revealed there was a character issue with the older child, but then proceeded to deal with only a surface issue: the yelling. Unless maybe this family does a lot of yelling and fighting? I don’t know. There weren’t words like “always” used in regard to the younger child’s actions. If so, maybe that’s why he used the example. It just seemed like it would have been a much better example for making a child take responsibility for their own actions, but then he not only never talked about that, he never required it of the child. I found this odd in a book about teens.

          I see what you’re saying, though, and what makes mothering hard is having to balance so many different issues in situations like these, I think. With that said, I still stand by my thought that if the father just calmly required his child to reap her own consequences — and had a habit of approaching it that way — the entire situation would have played out differently. The younger child can and should learn to deal gracefully with injustice, yes, but the father shouldn’t be the source of injustice in the child’s life if he can help it. 🙂

          • sally thomas October 18, 2018 at 9:00 am

            I loved this post. Some thoughts about the sister dynamic, though:

            My own initial response on reading the younger sister’s complaint was to consider that “always” (like “never”) is a distortion. Here it sounds as though her complaint is valid and based on a pattern. BUT as expressed, it’s problematic. When you accuse someone of “always” doing thus-and-such, you really ARE attacking the person’s character as a whole, not the particular behavior. And that tends not to create a situation in which a solution can be found, because the conversation is stuck on the person as opposed to the habit.

            Not that this isn’t a typical way to respond, and it’s not surprising that a teenager would respond in an immature way. But just as the pattern of leaving stuff and expecting others to cover for you isn’t a habit I would want a child to take to adulthood, neither is this pattern of communicating frustration. I think (assuming I wasn’t just trying to keep myself from pulling over and knocking heads together) I would actually intervene at that point to ask whether the younger sibling could express her complaint in a way that focused on the thing she was actually complaining about, ie the behavior, rather than her sister as a person. Not YOU are an irresponsible and selfish person (attack on character), but *I* am frustrated and angry when you forget your stuff, because I end up suffering the consequences unfairly (behavior and consequences). THAT is the issue. The solution is to figure out a solution for replacing the bad habit with a better one, not to turn a bad person into a better one.

            That is the kind of thing I want my teens to learn NOW (in addition to learning responsibility), because I want them to take not just life skills, but also constructive patterns of communication into their adult relationships.

            Overall, I thought this was great, though. It really does cast Masterly Inactivity as a larger idea — an idea that’s true in larger ways than we often think.

          • Brandy Vencel October 18, 2018 at 3:00 pm

            Sally, I think you make a really good point! I have *always* (ha!) been tempted to use absolute words like that, and my husband *always* calls me on it! Thankfully, he’s been teaching the children what you are talking about because it took me a decade or so of marriage for me to catch on. 😉

            I love what you said here. We use a lot of do-overs for habit training, but I don’t know that I would have thought to use it in the car! ♥

        • Reply Christina October 18, 2018 at 8:07 am

          I agree with you both but here is my 2 cents. I was quite literally the older “free spirited” daughter allowed to get away with much and laugh or exude it away. My sister was 2.5 yrs younger, and constantly affected by my selfishness. She was angry and mean about it. We would fight. Everyone would yell. I would win because my will and arguing skills are strong. Under my sister’s anger was pain, resentment, feelings of a favored older sister etc. and while I would get lectured for my “ditziness” my sister would be judged far more harshly for her ugly anger issues.
          I look back and see how addressing my issues would have helped to heal the wounds which bred the anger in my sister. My parents were first responsible for this. We were secondarily responsible until the older kid/teen years when I was capable of seeing I was a jerk and addressing it myself. Yes- they created the atmosphere and now in our 30s those experiences still inform our thinking and habits. The habits formed out of this very family dynamic continues to be a source of pain and problem to me. It is now between only God, my family and I and I alone am responsible. I wonder though, how our family would have been different if they didn’t constantly rescue me. The author of this blog didn’t say, “don’t be graceful.” It’s very obviously not talking about helping our children and loving them through mistakes. Forgetting your clarinet EVERY WEEK is not a mistake. It’s a habit. Yes, warn them you won’t be going back for it next time- but then stick to it. Yes, address your child’s anger and impatience, but know that underneath you may have a hurting kid who feels less loved and thought of- and just maybe she is less thought of and required to bend more because of her cute, ditzy (possibly lazy and impulsive) sister ❤️

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol September 26, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    This reminds me so much of the book, Boundaries with Kids! My husband, teen, and I are reading and discussing that right now in our 14+ family book group. It’s been a good way to give ideas on how to work with younger kids (for all three of us!), and a non-confrontational way to bring up things my husband and I would like to discuss with our daughter.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 26, 2018 at 3:01 pm

      I really should read that book, Amber. Thank you for the reminder. I first read the book Boundaries in college 20 years ago and it was super helpful.

      • Reply Amber Vanderpol September 27, 2018 at 7:58 am

        I actually picked it up because Mystie and Cindy recommended it on a Scholé Sisters podcast! 🙂 I’ve found it very helpful, although I wish they talked more about sibling relationships. Most of the kid relationship things they talk about are with friends. But the parent/child relationship thoughts and advice are great. It’s definitely the one I would recommend to people who are looking for a parenting book, and I’d really like to recommend it to a number of people I see at church, the park, the store… 😀

    • Reply Nadine January 3, 2019 at 7:49 pm

      I agree! This is exactly what Boundaries With Kids is all about. It is the best parenting book I have ever read.

  • Reply Elizabeth September 26, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    I just ordered this book- I have 14 & 12 yo’s! Do you actually recommend it? 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 26, 2018 at 2:59 pm

      Haha! I haven’t finished it yet, so it’s hard to say. I REALLY appreciate the neurological science they include. I think if I hadn’t read The Self-Driven Child right beforehand, I might not have been rubbed so wrong by a couple things like this.

      The premise of the book — that teen brains are being unmade and remade and so they do or think strange things — is super helpful, I think! 🙂

      • Reply Elizabeth September 26, 2018 at 4:35 pm

        Well, I guess I will give it a chance, then, but keep blogging about it if you have any more thoughts related to it! 🙂

  • Reply Julie Zilkie September 26, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    This is just absolutely spot on. Thank you!

  • Leave a Reply