We've all dreamed of them. Many of us have actually seen
them. But how do we actually 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.
There's no magic wand (oh, that there were!) to wave and
make our children stop bickering. But there are techniques to
encourage a cordial, dare we say, even friendly relationship. After
all, your kids will have each other long after you're gone. It's in
their best interest to help them appreciate each other while
And they're never too young to start. Make your children
part of your pregnancy by having them feel the kicks or go to the
ultrasound with you. Encourage them to be part of the new baby's
routine by giving them easy jobs to do like putting on the baby's
bib or smoothing the crib sheets.
Jennifer Bright Reich, mother of two young boys, made an
effort early on to point out whenever her older son's actions had a
positive effect on her younger son. "Look, your song made your
brother so happy!" or "Look how you were so funny and now he is
Another mom of two, Rebekah Hunter Scott, enforces little
rules with her kids to encourage empathy and friendship, including
always giving each other hugs when one has hurt the other, holding
hands when crossing the street, helping each other retrieve lost
toys or bringing each other drinks and snacks. These activities
reinforce the idea that they are there to look out for each other
and help each other.
One of the greatest gifts of parenthood is seeing your
children forge a relationship with each other that is independent
of you. And by giving them someone else to play with, you can free
up some time for yourself, doing something besides playing another
mind-numbing game of Candyland.
1. Don't compare.
Nearly all experts agree the number one thing parents can do
to help their kids be on good terms is to not pit them 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:
The Unfinished Business Between Siblings (Doubleday, 2010), says
that only serves to fuel the competition.
"Kids don't blame their parents for the unfairness," she observes,
"as much as they grow to resent their brother and
2. 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." That puts undue
pressure on the oldest child and leads to resentment.
3. Attitude is
everything. Don't assume sibling rivalry is a
given. Vikki Stark interviewed more than 400 women, teens and girls
about their sister relationship for her book, My Sister, My Self
(McGraw-Hill, 2006). She examined the relationships of what she
calls bonded sisters. "I found over and over that sisters who were
close came from families who put a lot of emphasis on the
relationship," she says. "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 (Atria, 1999), has found the best way to build
a good sibling relationship is simply to have an unspoken, baseline
expectation within the family that siblings will indeed be
"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," she says. Encouraging your children
to view their siblings as close allies brings them together in a
4. Activities and
opportunities. Have your kids go to each
other's games and activities. Get them involved in one another's
lives so they have a better appreciation of who their sibling 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," says Patricia Walters-Fischer, mother of two. Not
only do her children go, but they also offer support, encouraging
each other before a big game or performance and offering comfort
when things don't go well. Kids don't need to attend every event of
their brother's or sister's, but they should know what it's all
As a family, play games or be active together-walk the
dogs, go for a bike ride or even fly a kite. There's a reason
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.
Oak Brook-based psychologist Dr. Mark Sharp finds anything
that helps kids identify as a part of the family is particularly
helpful. "Family traditions, family rituals, these experiences
create a sense of bond. That helps create a shared identity, which
helps them feel closer."
And don't forget to let your children be bored together.
Boredom often encourages creativity and imagination and sometimes
forces siblings to spend time together.
chores. Once in a while, give your kids some
task they have to share-wash the car, rake leaves or wash and dry
Dr. John Duffy, a Chicago-area clinical psychologist and
author of the forthcoming book, 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-getting the water, heating it, washing and
drying. They hated every minute of it so they made up songs of
protest, which ended up bridging their relationship. It's something
they both remember and chuckle about to this day.
Conversations. Family meetings
allow family members to safely and comfortably talk about problems
or conflicts that they have 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
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 regularly to talk
about their day's events.
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
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.
8. And if that doesn't work
… Alas, 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 from Elmhurst with four children. Most of the time, her kids get along remarkably well. Most of the time.
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