We’ve all dreamed of them. Many of us have actually seen them. But how do we raise them? I’m talking about siblings who get along. Those mysterious brothers and sisters who enjoy being together and have each other’s back.
While there’s no magic wand to wave and make our children stop bickering, there are some techniques to encourage a cordial, even friendly, relationship. After all, your kids will have each other long after you’re gone.
- Don’t compare. Most experts agree that parents should not pit siblings against each other. And whatever you do, don’t choose a favorite. Beware dreaded phrases such as “Your sister never…” or “Why can’t you do what your brother does…” Jane Isay, author of Mom Still Likes You Best, says that those comments only serve to fuel the competition. “Kids don’t blame their parents for the unfairness as much as they grow to resent their brother and sister.”
- Stay out of the way. Try not to get too involved in your kids’ arguments, unless there is physical injury or cruel taunting. Learning cooperation and problem solving is an important skill in life, and one best taught by having to work problems out with siblings. Isay cites one grown woman who remembers biting her own arm as a child and then blaming her sister. So don’t assume you know what your kids are up to. They may need help resolving a conflict, but try not to take sides. And don’t blame the older one for not “knowing better,” which puts undue pressure and resentment on the oldest child.
- Attitude is everything. Don’t assume that sibling rivalry is a given. Vikki Stark, MSW, interviewed more than 400 women, teens and girls about their relationship for her book, My Sister My Self. “I found over and over that sisters who were close came from families who put a lot of emphasis on the relationship,” she explains. “It was a family culture—you are sisters, you have each other to depend on for life and we expect you to have a close relationship.”
Katie Allison Granju, a mom of five kids and author of Attachment Parenting, has found that the best way to build a good sibling relationship is to have a baseline expectation within the family that siblings will be friends. Granju explains, “I see some families where the parents are constantly making remarks about sibling rivalry and jealousy, and the mom and dad almost seem to fan the flames of potential sibling ‘issues’ starting in early childhood.” Encouraging your children to view their siblings as close allies brings them together in a very fundamental way.
- Activities and opportunities. Have your kids go to each other’s games and activities. Get them involved in each other’s lives so they have a better appreciation for who the other person is. “We go to each other’s activities, participate in activities together and we as parents are supportive of each other as well as our children,” remarks Patricia Walters-Fischer, mother of two kids. Not only do her children go but they offer support as well, encouraging each other before a big game or performance and offering comfort when things don’t go well. Kids don’t need to go to every event, but they should know what it’s all about.
As a family, play games or be active together. There’s a reason that family game night is gaining popularity: it encourages teamwork and a healthy sense of competition. When families spend their time shuttling kids from activity to activity, they lose the sense of being a unit and become instead a group of individuals.
Dr. Mark Sharp, a family and child psychologist, finds that anything that helps kids identify together as a part of a family is particularly helpful. “Family traditions, family rituals, these experiences create a sense of a bond. That helps create a sense of shared identity which helps them feel closer.” Don’t forget to let your children be bored together. Boredom often encourages creativity and imagination and sometimes forces siblings to spend time together.
- Joint chores. Once in a while, give your kids something they have to do together—wash the car, rake leaves or wash and dry the dishes. Dr John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent, recalls one family who always assigned co-chores, “Whether it was doing the dishes, walking the dog or taking out the garbage, at least two siblings were involved. In doing this, the parents created a situation in which cooperation was an imperative, and their children have really risen to it.”
Isay also remembers growing up and spending summers at a cottage with no running water. She and her brother had to do the dishes every night, including getting the water, heating it, washing and drying. They hated every minute of it so they made up songs of protest, which ended up bonding their relationship. It’s something they both remember and chuckle about even now.
- Conversations. Family meetings allow family members to safely and comfortably tell about problems or conflicts that they feel with their brothers or sisters. Everyone should be allowed to speak, and everyone should be expected to listen. It’s the perfect time to plan family events, discuss opportunities, resolve conflicts and offer up congratulations.
Throughout the week, look for opportunities to continue to share and encourage each other. Parents shouldn’t be shy about divulging their good news, frustrations and accomplishments with their kids. Likewise, kids should be encouraged to regularly talk about their days’ events.
- Vacations. Don’t underestimate the value of a family vacation for bringing siblings together. The effects may be temporary, but when kids are out of their comfort zone, away from their friends and forced to spend time together, amazingly they often enjoy each other.
It doesn’t need to be anything elaborate. In fact, a weekend camping trip offers some of the best opportunities for working together, hanging out, having fun and experiencing something new. It also removes the technical gadgets that kids are so used to now.
But what if that doesn’t work? For some families, even with the best intentions and actions, nothing works. Their kids seem to enjoy being in a constant state of fighting, tattling and arguing. It may be a tough few years for you, but Isay offers a silver lining: “The fact that they’re fighting as kids has no relation to how they will get along as adults.”
Laura Amann is a freelance writer with four children. Most of the time, her kids get along remarkably well. But not always.