Your second child is on the way and friends and family say, "Oh, how wonderful! Little Suzy will make a great big sister. They'll have each other to grow up with and will each have a built-in best friend."
Sounds great in theory, but how we nurture-or unwittingly discourage-their bond can have a tremendous impact on whether or not that bond lasts and sustains them long after they have grown up.
Believe it or not, there are some practical things you can do to begin fostering good rapport among
your children-and to nip sibling rivalry and jealousy in the bud-before your second child is even born. Include your oldest in some of the planning and give her important jobs to do once her sibling arrives, like singing to him and fetching his diapers. Then, make sure each child gets regular alone time with you, even if it's just for your weekly trip to the grocery store. One-on-one time doesn't have to be an "event," by the way. Your child will feel important and needed, simply by your letting her pick the bananas.
As they grow, resist the urge to compare your kids to each other. Remember how much you hated it when your parents said, "Why can't you just be more like your sister and ('make your bed' or 'do your homework')?" Your kids hate it, too, and not just the one not making the grade. Your children are individuals, with different motivations and needs.
But sometimes the comparisons that drive a wedge are more subtle. "Look how nicely Suzy points her toes (in ballet class)," for example. Your impulse might be pure and your intention to simply teach, but your child likely hears, "You're not as skilled as your sister," and feels inadequate as a result. Opt, instead, for offering gentle feedback and encouragement, and do it when siblings are out of earshot.
No matter what we do, even the warmest of sibling bonds can grow cool from time to time. When this happens, acknowledge your child's frustration with her brother or sister. Sometimes mere listening-done without always trying to talk her out of her feelings or defending her sibling-can work wonders.
When they do disagree, pick your battles. You don't have to referee all of their conflicts. Let them work things out for themselves, unless things get ugly. If the conflict is over a toy (or computer, television, etc.), calmly explain that you'll give them an opportunity (time-limited) to negotiate a solution. If they cannot collaborate productively, the object of their conflict will go into time-out until they can. You'll be amazed at how well this one works in promoting peace and harmony in your home. "Like magic!" I've heard parents say.
Also, create other no-fail opportunities for teamwork among your children. They can volunteer at a food shelter together, spend an afternoon tackling a trust-building ropes course or simply play on the same team (even if it's just the one in your backyard). The idea is that they'll develop a shared history of good times-and of having each other's back, not just using them for target practice.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.