Our kids, almost 6 and 2, are homeschooled. This means they spend a lot of time together.
Before the nineteenth century siblings spent every day, all day together, helping their parents with chores and activities on the farm to live and prosper.
Today, siblings spend their lives in different worlds if they’re in school and activities all day. They spend mere moments together with the family in the mornings before leaving for school, maybe some time before bed and on the weekends. But that’s about it.
I wanted to foster a loving, respectful relationship once our second child was born. After doing a ton of research and, mostly, following my gut (aka God), I’ve come to a few conclusions in helping foster this type of relationship between our kids.
1) Never make them compete or take sides. When it’s time to clean up, or brush our teeth, or get dressed, or get our seat belts on – we never say “who can do it first!?” This pits our kids against each other. Instead, we say, how can we help each other complete their task so we can move to our next activity? This way you can say “wow, you guys make a great team!” Our kids beam with pride instead of fear of each other’s abilities. Sometimes, when they’re roughhousing our older son will ask “whose side are you on, mom?” I’ll say “I’m on dad’s side”… because my husband and I are on a team while my son and daughter are on their team. Because we won’t be on this earth someday and they’ll be left to fend for each other.
2) Praise and encourage them together. This doesn’t mean we don’t offer praise or encourage our children individually. We do (see #3). But mainly, we say “wow, you guys are such a great team!” We’ll often let them know how proud we are (and how happy God is) when we see them helping each other or working nicely together or alongside one another – after they’re done, because you never want to interrupt when they’re jiving!
3) Treat each child as an individual. This goes back to not pitting our children against each other and I learned this one early, thankfully. Say you give three pancakes to your oldest child and you give two to your youngest child. Your youngest child may immediately say “I want 3 like big brother!” You respond with something like, “You see big brother has three pancakes and you want three too. Big brother said he’s really hungry. Are you really hungry too? Once you eat your pancakes you may have more as well.” Same goes with everything like age-appropriate clothes, toys, activities and such. Sometimes it’s the other way around and big brother would like something younger sister has access to and we simply say “I understand you’d also like to play with her horse, and when you were her size you rode on things that size as well. Let’s find something stronger you can ride on since your body is taller and heavier.”
4) Treat them unfairly. Ha! You didn’t expect this one, did you? Nothing in life is ever fair so we don’t attempt to mask this. Everything should be doled out for each child as you, the parents, see fit. Not because the other child has something the other doesn’t. You wouldn’t give your son a tutu for football practice, would you? And you wouldn’t give your daughter a helmet for ballet practice, right? Everyone was made unique in God’s plan, and if everyone was the same and received the same things, uniqueness would vanish. I know this is a bit lofty to explain to your children, but you can model this a lot as they grow.
5) Never label. You may have an artistic or adventurous child. The other may be really into books and math. (Take our two children, for example who are complete polar opposites!). This doesn’t mean we ever allow our children to hear us talking about how one child is a “bookworm” and the other is “the gymnast,” for example. Once we start labeling our kids, they take on these personas and start believing they embody those traits, when these traits may just be in passing or something they’re passionate about but this doesn’t mean they’re also not passionate about other activities, including things his or her sibling is interested in.
5) Foster empathy and celebration for each other. I love this one. When one child hurts the other (emotionally or physically) we stop everything immediately and show how this made the other child feel. We talk about what’s happening and discuss alternatives and ways to work together (or apart). And we always keep them safe. By this I mean, if one kid tries to hurt the other physically, we put ourselves in between them and explain we won’t let them hurt each other. I find when we show them they’re safe, they calm down immediately. And when one child accomplishes something, we bring in the other sibling to celebrate these victories. When big brother paints a picture, little sister gets to oooh and aaahh over it. And when little sister uses the potty, big brother gets to sing the celebratory song. When they show excitement over accomplishments, even when they seem small to us, both beam with pride because giving and receiving compliments from those we love feels amazing and only builds upon their bond.
6) Get down on their level. This one is sometimes the toughest. You’re cooking dinner and they start squabbling. You’ll need to pause your beautiful dinner to get down and talk them through what they’re feeling. If you expect them to work it out they’ll never know how to work it out and one may always outsmart the other knowing how to get away with things. With time, the one who gets taken advantage of won’t blame their sibling, they’ll blame you as the parent for not noticing and indirectly taking sides. Sometimes it makes sense to let them work things out on their own and they often do. Just make sure you’re within earshot so you can praise them for working so well together and figuring out a solution.
7) Let them have their space when they want it. It’s tough being around each other so often. I get it. I had two younger sisters who followed me everywhere. Our older son will oftentimes want to shut the door to his bedroom and play for hours. And we let him. We find ways to occupy his sister outside of his room because he needs his space. This is seriously tough when she’s heartbroken he’s not letting her in. But it’s essential we show respect for one another’s space, and we communicate it to the other child. “Big brother needs his space right now, let’s find something fun to do together – you have mommy all to yourself now!”
I don’t think any of this is rocket science. But I do think they’re crucial steps to helping cultivate healthy sibling chemistry. And there are plenty of other things you can do I haven’t listed.
One day you’ll be able to step back and watch them show love, patience and respect for one another without your intervention because you’ve modeled it with them. I know because I already see it happening and they’re still so young!
Until then, look for God’s grace in the hard times. He’s there through it all. He promises. You just have to believe He is and call on Him.