How can we cultivate sibling friendships in our children as they begin learning about conflicting desires?
“You—–!! ” Jeff screamed at his brother. Taking her son aside, Jeff’s mom, said,
“Son you know those words aren’t allowed, You will have to go to your room.“
“But Will made me say it,” wailed the furious child. “And you’re punishing me, not Will and it’s all his fault. Why aren’t you punishing him?”
“Nobody makes you talk like that. You are responsible for what comes out of your mouth, son. Your brother is not.”
“I hate my brother.”
Sound familiar? Scenes like this happen every day and cause us to ask ourselves, Did I handle this right? Will these children ever like each other?
Sibling rivalry has been around forever. The Old Testament story of Joseph and his jealous brothers is a well-known example. While the causes of sibling rivalry are many, they can be reduced to one basic source–original sin.
We all want what we want when we want it. We want to be the favorite. We want everything to go our way. We want the most recognition, the most attention. And we don’t ever want to share, wait, or let someone else get the credit.
Because the challenges of dealing with sibling rivalry are different at every age, it’s helpful to look at some ways of building friendships between brothers and sisters at three important stages of their life: the early, middle and later (teen) years.
How to Build Sibling Friendships in the Early Years
After all the fuss and excitement over the new baby, her toddler sister turned to her Mom and said,
“Take baby back now, Mommy. He go bye-bye now.”
Even at her young age, this sister was quickly tired of competition. Early years are important because seeds of character are beginning to develop. Personality qualities such as patience, thoughtfulness, gentleness and caring need to be nurtured. Here are some practical things to do during these early years.
1. Prepare for the new baby.
When a new baby is due, begin to give your older child a positive vision. Say, “You are going to be the best big sister in the world; our new baby is so lucky to have you for a big sister.”
When my husband and I brought each of our five children home from the hospital, we laid the new baby on the couch and had family members put their hands on the infant as we prayed a special prayer giving this child back to the Lord. We asked God to keep him safe and help him grow up to love the Lord. And we asked God to help us learn to be good parents, brothers, and sisters for this new baby.
Before I went to the hospital, I wrapped a gift for each child at home and put it in the trunk of the car. This gift was brought home with the new baby as his gift to each sibling. With it came a note saying, “I’m so glad you are my big sister or brother!”
2. Make a plan for the big kids.
Older siblings often misbehave when Mom is caring for the baby. A special activity box can help and make the older child feel special. Fill a plastic box with markers, stickers, and other tools for creativity and keep it in a specific place. This is the “big boy” or “big girl” box and comes out for play at special times of need. Plan dates with the big kids. Get a sitter for the baby and take an older child out for ice-cream or to the movies.
3. Teach kids to wait and to share.
Our children will have to learn to wait. And they won’t like it.
But much of life is waiting. As adults, we still don’t like to wait. But we do our kids a disservice in preparing them for adulthood when we satisfy all their needs immediately.
Siblings are a blessing because they force us to teach our kids to wait their turn, to share. There’s a toy no one has wanted to play with, and then someone finds it, and everyone wants it at the same time. A timer with a bell is essential. One child can have it until the bell rings then it’s another child’s turn. The argument over who gets to sit next to the window on a three-minute car ride can begin a sibling war. Who would ever imagine something so trivial can be so disruptive?
4. Teach kids to respect each other’s person and property.
Don’t permit verbal abuse of parents or each other ever. All kids will try it. When our kids verbally abused each other or talked back to us, we washed their mouth out with yucky tasting soap. A friend uses white vinegar, another Tabasco sauce on the tip of a tongue. You may have a better idea. Whatever you choose, make it swift, and consistent. A young child who is allowed to get away with verbal abuse will develop into a teenager who talks back to parents and teachers, and a spouse who abuses his own wife and kids. Teach your child how to argue fairly.
“You aren’t being fair. You make me feel stupid. I disagree with you because…” are better phrases to use.
Teach young children to return borrowed toys. They should ask permission before playing with a sibling’s toy. If they begin to learn this at a young age, it will make the middle and teen years easier.
Every family will experience the frustration of sibling rivalry. How it plays out in each family will be influenced by the sexes of the children, their age differences, their personalities, their birth order, and how the parents handle the problem. Our job as parents is not merely to keep our kids from killing each other, but to give them the tools for learning to be friends.
After all, our greatest desire as parents is that our kids will love the Lord with all their hearts, love us as their parents and love each other as well. Our children will not always have us their parents to turn to, but they will have each other. We are building for that day.
How to Maintain Sibling Friendships in the Middle Years
When our daughter Allison was 12 and our son John 10 they didn’t like each other very much. Once she brought home a cow’s eye from a science class and told him it was a piece of candy that he should eat! As he began to put it in his mouth, she burst out laughing and told him what it really was. Needless to say, he was furious. I often despaired that these two would ever like each other! But they went off to the same college, double dated, and before our future son-in-law Will asked my husband if he could marry Allison, he first asked her brother John.
During these middle years, we continue to enforce those standards of the early years. But it’s harder in some ways because their arguments are so much better and we begin to wear out. The following will help.
1. Determine when to get involved and when not to.
A friend of mine with four boys walked into the room where they were wrestling. She knew that before long one or two of them would come crying to her.
“Okay guys, she said, if you insist on wrestling I don’t want to hear any complaints unless you can see blood or bones!”
During the early years, we intervene the most. We operate as a coach, training in the fundamentals. But as we reach the middle years, we move from being the coach to being the referee. Later we will move to being the spectator, watching our children interact, cheering their good moves, aching when they falter but letting them make their own mistakes. Our job at that time is to ask good questions.” Can you think of three creative ways to handle this problem? If you were the parent, how would you handle this dispute?”
2. Anticipate potential conflicts.
“She always gets to have a friend over, and I never do.”
“They won’t let me play with them. They leave me out.”
Until we’ve had some disastrous experiences, we probably won’t learn what works or doesn’t work with our children. After a negative experience ask yourself some questions, What works best for our kids? Should each child have a friend over on the same day? Do they need to play in separate areas or do they play well together? Would it be better for my children to take turns having a friend over?
3. Have family forums.
Sometimes families experience repeated discord. If this happens, gather the family together and insist that each person listens to every other family member express his views about the problem. Then discuss creative solutions. Keep in mind the goal is to attack the problem and not other family members. Before the family forum, parents need to agree about how they are going to handle the forum and what their goals are for it.
4. Be sensitive to hormones and personalities.
A teenage sister is grumpy as all get out. Her younger brother doesn’t understand why she seems so mad. Take him aside and explain to him about hormones. Tell him it isn’t his fault. He must be patient. His sister is having a difficult time because of the changes taking place in her body. These changes are wonderful, but they can also be annoying.
I remember when one of our twins said,
“Why does my sister like to talk on the phone all the time? I don’t like to. She’s weird.”
“She’s not weird,” I responded. “You two are just different, and I am so glad. It would be boring if you were just alike.”
Frequently our kids will make comparisons of better or worse. The person or thing compared is not better or worse, but merely different.
5. Provide opportunities for siblings to work together on something fun.
Often siblings who clash do so because they are competing for Mom’s or Dad’s attention. Give these two “clashers” an opportunity to do something together where the parents aren’t. Send two sisters to the mall or to the movies. Assign two siblings a fun family project to work on together. Doing something together provides an opportunity for a relationship to grow. This is especially helpful in trying to blend siblings from two different families.
6. Insist your children forgive and accept forgiveness.
We were on a family hike when Libby, who was carrying a big backpack, tripped and fell. Her brother John laughed at her hurting her feelings. As we continued our walk, the tension between the two of them increased until the whole family could feel it.
“John,” I said, “You must apologize to your sister and ask her to forgive you for making fun of her. It seems like a little thing but your relationship is not right, and we can’t go any farther until you and Libby take care of this problem.”
He didn’t like doing it but he did, and both children learned an important lesson about forgiveness that day. People in families hurt each other and have to ask for forgiveness. Saying I’m sorry often isn’t enough. It doesn’t require a response. Asking for forgiveness does. And they will need to do this in their future marriages as well.
How to Maintain Sibling Friendships in the Later Years
One of the real blessings of the later teen years is that we begin to see they did learn a few things. They do seem to like each other at least sometimes. But we can continue to encourage these friendships.
1. Know what’s happening in each other’s lives.
In the busyness of activities, it’s all too easy to pass in the night, not knowing what’s going on in each other’s life. Take a few moments each morning to pray together. Have each person share one thing that’s on their schedule for the day. Then let each person pray for one other family member. Dinner time can become a time of sharing about the day.
Our refrigerator was once full of weekly schedules for the kids who were at college. We knew when Chris was in history class or at his discipleship group. It helped us stay connected with one another. And it enabled the younger ones still at home to know what their older siblings were doing.
I encouraged the boys to take their sisters out on dates when they were home. I slipped them the money, but they did the asking.
2. Love your own siblings.
I remember those phone calls. My mother’s voice would rise with excitement, and her enthusiasm and joy would explode. It was one of her brothers on the phone. Mom modeled for us kids what it meant to be committed to siblings. She took pride in her brothers’ accomplishments, she felt pain for their tragedies, she was available whenever they needed her, and she cared for their families. Just watching how they loved each other taught me about sibling relationships.
If we want our children to catch a vision for loving their siblings, they need to see us actively loving our own siblings-even if they are difficult, even if we have been out of touch.
It’s never too late to reach out and do what’s right.
Right now, there’s a thick layer of snow on the ground outside my window. I can’t see any evidence of spring at all. However, God is at work preparing tiny plants to burst forth in due season. Right now you may not see any progress in the challenges of sibling rivalry. But don’t be discouraged. God is working while you are waiting and in time you will see the results of your hard work!
Susan Alexander Yates is a mom to five children (including a set of twins) and grandmother to 21 (including a set of quadruplets!). Susan and her husband John have been married 51 years. Susan has written 16 books and speaks on the subjects of marriage, parenting, faith, and women’s issues. Susan’s favorite time of the year is June when all her kids and grandkids are together for a week of “cousins and family camp” in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia.