'I hate him!'

Recently, my 7-year-old dissolved in a fit of tears and anger. "I hate him! I hate having a brother! I wish he were never born! Why can't you send him to boarding school?"

"Or chop his head off or something?" her 8-year-old sister suggested.

It was hard to understand what 4-year-old Etani's offense had been but I finally made it out through Athena's sobs. "He (sob) grabbed my flower (sob) and put it (sob sob sob) in water (sob sob sob sob)."

"I'll go get it." Etani ran to retrieve the flower.

Athena was subdued. But not for long. After brushing her teeth she remembered the affront and started crying again. "I hate having a little brother. He's so annoying."

"Big brothers are just as bad," I said. "Uncle Zach was the worst. If you think Etani is annoying, try growing up with Uncle Zach."

"What did he do?"

"I'd come downstairs and ask, 'What's for dinner?' and he'd say 'food,' and crack up because he thought it was so funny."

Both girls giggled. "YOU think that's funny?" I said indignantly. "It was so annoying!"

"What else? Tell us more!"

"I'd ask him where something was and he'd say, 'Over there!' and point in two directions at once."

Athena fell off the toilet seat she laughed so hard at that one.

"What else Mommy? What else?"

"You think it's funny but it used to drive me crazy. I'm not telling you anything else. You're clearly on his side!"

Athena &

who less than half an hour earlier suggested I send Etani away forever &

gave Etani a piggy back ride around the house and they giggled together on the couch. She read him a book and he waited patiently when she sounded out the longer words.

When she and her sister went on a sleepover, Etani gave them really long hugs and said quietly, "I'm really going to miss you." And he did.

I guess that's the way it is with siblings: They enjoy each other as fiercely as they hate each other. Though we were always close, my brother and I fought all the time. But as soon as he left for college &

as if someone had flicked a switch &

we became best friends. We liked each other so much that we decided to share an apartment and attend the same graduate school.

When the girls complain about their pesky younger brother, whose shenanigans drive us all crazy sometimes, I try to listen without scolding them for voicing their feelings. It's painful to hear. I want my kids to get along. I want them to look out for and support each other. And I worry about Etani's self-esteem. He wakes up early and we snuggle in bed and "have a chat."

"To know you is to love you," I tell him.

"Hesperus and Athena don't love me," he says matter-of-factly.

"They do. They just sometimes get annoyed."

"I know," he answers. "Because, like, I steal their things and bother them and stuff."

I think of the three of them holding hands walking ahead of me to the park, of Hesperus saying Etani is her "little buddy" and getting him into his pajamas, of Athena and Etani dressing up in eye patches and kerchiefs and playing Swashbuckling Pirates. I once read somewhere that siblings actually enjoy fighting. I still bristle when I think of how Zach would ignore me. Though I hope love will win out, maybe it's okay that Athena hates Etani and loves him at the same time.

is the editor of "Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love," author of "Why Babies Do That: Baffling Baby Behavior Explained," and co-author (with James di Properzio) of "The Baby Bonding Book for Dads."

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