I recently read the children’s book My Big Shouting day by Rebecca Patterson and suddenly saw it with fresh eyes. On the surface this gorgeous story is about a little girl called Bella who wakes up in a very bad mood. The story follows Bella and her family throughout the day and we bear witness to her epic (but amusing) day-long tantrum. While this book appears to be all about her ravaging temper, I think it’s actually about something much more complicated: Sibling rivalry. Packaged in a the most brilliant way, the dominant story line focuses on her anger and then very subtly the language and pictures fill in the important subtext about the contradictory feelings her baby brother evokes in her. Watch the video reading of the book below and then read on to unpack how this story helps us understand sibling rivalry in our own homes.
The big dilemma
In the story Bella wakes up and sees her baby brother licking HER beads. This sparks a roller coaster of a day. Bella is now mad and as the day progresses she lets everyone in her path know about it. So what is Bella so mad about? Well she is the older sibling and today she was reminded that the mere presence of a sibling takes away something more precious than jewels: Being the only special one! Let’s face it, feeling replaced is hard. See how her baby brother is taking away her tiara? Here we catch a glimpse of the big dilemma that sharing evokes and how rivalry for attention threatens the proverbial crown.
Siblings upset the pecking order
On a family walk, we see Bella lying down on the other end of the pavement, complaining about her “hurting foot”. Perhaps positioning herself all the way down the road is an attempt to show how ‘left behind’ she feels (on the inside). Later in the day she ruins the princess game and her friend has to go home. This can be seen as her haphazard way of communicating that she is no longer the princess of the house and feels excommunicated from her Kingdom. Siblings prepare us all for the harsh life-long reality that we have to wait for what we want and we can’t have it all. Even today as an adult I struggle with this challenge.
At various points in the day Bella screams that the “peas are TOO hot … our bath is TOO COLD… I am TOO WET [after the bath]…and it [the toothpaste] is TOO MINTY”. It seems like she is really being brattish and complaining for absolutely no reason. But actually, buried in her language is the source of her misery. This can be seen in the repetition of the word “too”. Her brother looks like he is about two years old and there are two kids in the family, . There are also two fish fingers on the plate. Perhaps her shouting about “TOO this” and “TOO that” is also her way of communicating that she finds the idea of TWO kids, just TOO much to bear!
Anger can be survived
Throughout the story mom remains calm, albeit weary of Bella’s mood. Mom does interesting things with Bella’s behaviour: Sometimes she ignores it, sometimes she engages with it, sometimes she fuels it. At no point however does she tell Bella not to be angry but rather she corrects her behaviour as best she can. Bella learns quickly that while the big shouty feelings may be allowed, certain behaviours aren’t; like at ballet when she is told not to disrupt the class. In other words, her anger isn’t bad, but her behaviour is inappropriate. This is an important dual message for Bella and all kids battling with their anger as the message is both validating and containing all at once.
Ambivalence is healthy
The next day Bella wakes up in a cheerful mood and actually has a wonderful day with her brother. The image of the two siblings jumping up and down on the trampoline is an incredible image that shows the inevitable ups and the downs in the sibling dynamic as well as the potential for fun and joy. This beautifully captures Bella’s ambivalence and that she both loves and hates aspects of being a big sister. Most importantly she learns that the big bad feelings from yesterday will not destroy the relationship today.
The bottom line
This story really paints a complex picture about what is evoked in kids in relation to their siblings. Now I am not suggesting that as parents we are doing anything terrible to our kids by having lots of kids. In fact siblings are one of life’s greatest gifts (albeit packaged with tough life lessons.) I think it’s just really important to recognize that these ordinary primal feelings exist inside young minds, whether based in reality or not. At the end of the day siblings are not always meant to get along and our kids should be allowed to have all their feelings about each other. These just need to be processed in ordinary ways and the family will survive them… and then love each other anyway. I really take my hat off to Rebecca Patterson for creating a children’s book that brilliantly captures the social and emotional nuances of the highly evocative sibling dynamic. This is a wonderful book to read to kids when you can feel the temperatures rising in the household. And even if you don’t address the tension directly, it will be experienced through the story, the imagery and the simple fact that you are reading it together, followed by a bedtime hug.