Victoria White: Target your neighbour if you want an end to family squabbles
"I'm not riding this bike!"
She pouts and folds her arms across her middle. She's only eight, but already I'm pitying the man that gets her.
Her brother, riding the pink and white bike she got for Christmas, has charged ahead and the dog is nearly out of sight. I want to just leave her there to sulk, but then I think of the army of paedophiles waiting in the bushes for me to leave one of the children behind.
So I start shouting at her brother to come back and exchange bikes.
Eventually, he does, and we are back on the track of our morning dog walk beside the river. I am feeling pleased with myself for dealing effectively with the situation. Until she starts to whinge, "He's ruined my bike! I can't cycle it anymore!"
"What did you do to her bike?"
"I did nothing to her bike!"
His lip begins to tremble and then we are into a duet of shrieking and crying from the last scenes of a tragic opera.
The dog is no opera fan and has gone off to chase ducks in the far distance. If we don't get going we'll lose the dog, not to mention the ducks.
"Leave your bike! We'll get it on our way back!"
The wailing reaches a crescendo and there is a crash as the bike hits the ground again. I roar, "Don't you dare treat that expensive bike like that!"
There is an awkward pause. You see, I didn't buy the bike, strictly speaking. It came down the chimney on Christmas Day. No one says anything. We leave the bike and begin to struggle on up the path, but she starts to lag behind deliberately and I am sure that the army of paedophiles is tracking us from behind the bushes. So I stand in the middle of the path shouting at her to keep up and at her brother to come back. Now it's him throwing his bike on the ground, folding his arms over his middle, and roaring.
The parenting websites say you should "work through their conflicts in a way that's respectful, productive and not aggressive" so that your kids will do the same with each other. So I roared at them,
"If you don't shut up I'll throw you in the river!"
Was that respectful enough? What are my chances of getting through the summer? More to the point, what are theirs? My brother and sister were so much older than me that I grew up as an only child. I don't understand sibling rivalry. But I'm beginning to realise that senseless competition is part of the wiring of most human beings, and the way this story ends proves my point.
Along comes a neighbour with a dog and a ball. I remember the community event recently that got a little tense when he suggested his dog always got the ball before any other and I said our dog always won.
"Let's race them," he says now, acting casual. Suddenly our family unites like the Three Musketeers behind their our black Lab, Jess.
He throws the ball. Jess easily outruns his little terrier. Best of three, he says. He throws and Jess wins again. He throws the ball into the bushes on the riverbank. Both dogs disappear and we wait, full of tension, on the path. After what seems like ages, the dogs reappear looking like they've had a great time -- but without the ball.
"We'll call it an honourable draw," says the neighbour, and our family starts back towards the house, muttering darkly. Suddenly, when we're nearly home, Jess streaks triumphantly down the road with the ball in her mouth.
The children are beside themselves. They place the ball on the neighbour's doorstep with a note saying, "Your dog might want her ball back" and we all run down the road, happy campers. Forget the "respectful, productive and not aggressive" carry-on, I just have to teach them to pick their competition outside the family.