Megan Durst, 2 1/2, was exhibiting classic signs of sibling rivalry, although the new baby expected in her family won't be born until next year.
Like four other children enrolled in a recent sibling preparedness class at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Megan was given a sheet of colored paper, some stickers and crayons to create a card for the new baby. She was asked to write, or have a parent write, the words Dear Baby, followed perhaps by something along the the lines of "I can't wait for you to be born." "Megan, sweetie," her father Steve Durst prodded, "do you want to say 'Dear Baby' on the card?"
"Oh, no!" she shot back, eventually compromising and agreeing to tell the baby, "I like Mickey Mouse."
Megan was hardly alone in her indifference toward the child already occupying much of her parents' attention. Other kids in the class--designed to let children know that it's normal and OK for them to feel angry and jealous when a new baby is born--were having similar difficulties.
Beau's New Puppy
Several of the children couldn't think of anything they wanted to say to the strange, invisible creatures allegedly living inside their mothers' bellies. Eight-year-old Beau Bright, for instance, claimed he didn't know what to tell his yet-to-be-born sister. Finally, he wrote, "Dear Isabelle, You half (sic) to meat (sic) my new puppy. Love, Beau."
Welcome to child-rearing in the late '80s, a time when many youngsters learn how to swim before they can walk, how to read before they can talk and how to be a sibling before their new baby brother or sister is even born.
Sibling preparedness classes--or sibling tours as they're sometimes called--are becoming commonplace at hospitals. According to the nurses, volunteers and assorted health educators who teach them, the classes began showing up in growing numbers in the early part of the decade as hospitals increasingly began allowing young children to visit their mothers after the birth of a baby.
The classes and tours typically provide children with opportunities to view newborns through the hospital's nursery window, to see films or slide shows on what type of feelings older children are likely to experience when a new brother or sister is born, to inspect the type of room their mothers will be staying in, to learn the correct way to hold and diaper a newborn (practiced with a doll or teddy bear) and to participate in small discussion groups in which they can talk about their fears and apprehensions.
Depending on the hospital, the classes may be given free of charge or for a fee, once a month or several times a month. They are usually open to children from ages 2 to 12. The St. John's class, for example, costs $25 and is open to anyone, including families not delivering at the hospital. At Humana Hospital West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, the class is free and open to anyone.
While there is no known research on the effectiveness of the classes, their teachers frequently report marked results.
"It's very positive," says Nancy Dunne, the perinatal coordinator at Humana. "A lot of the time we don't see the total end results of it (the sibling orientation class). But the children who come to the hospital to visit are not afraid to reach out and touch the baby.
"Many times a child of 2 or 3 will reach out and try to slap the child or push it away from their mother. We've never had a case of the child doing that after going through the orientation."
In preparation for writing the book, "Raising Cain: How to Help Your Children Achieve a Happy Sibling Relationship," authors Herbert S. Strean and Lucy Freeman visited some sibling preparation classes at hospitals.
"I think they're an excellent idea because they prepare the child to deal with the sibling in advance," says Strean, a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City who's had parents bring him children "because they've hit a new baby over the head with a hammer."
"I think every child in the world wants to be the most important," he adds. "No child 100% welcomes a sibling. They're always worried about how much affection they're going to lose. Sometimes it's intense, sometimes its mild, but the concern is always there."
To Strean, a sibling tour or class is a clear way to demonstrate that a child is loved and valued. "It says, 'You, too, are important and we care about you.' When you say to youngsters who are worried about losing their stature, 'Look how important you are. We're gong to take you around,' you're saying a lot."
In the sibling orientation program at Humana--which has been in operation for about three years, with Dunne as teacher for two years and supervisor for about a year--newborns in the nursery are naked. "So there's usually a lot of questions about why the babies don't have any clothes on," Dunne says of the hour to hour-and-15-minute class. "And when we have them actually diaper the dolls and teddy bears, it's hysterical. . . .