A few years ago, one of my son’s teachers mentioned to me how nice it was that he and his brother genuinely seemed to like each other. She contrasted it with her own brothers, who had never been close, and commented that was great that our boys were friends. She had noticed that when they saw each other in the hallways at school, they were always happy to cross paths – even if it was just with a smile and a little high five when they were supposed to be quiet in a line.
I was so happy to hear that their friendship was intact out in the real world! Because my husband and I have invested a lot of time and energy encouraging sibling friendships.
As all moms know, it isn’t always so pleasant between siblings. They want the same toy at the same time, one kid just ate the last of the cereal that the other wanted, or one just looked at the other one wrong. The fighting can be exhausting!
While some sibling fighting is just a part of growing up and learning to navigate relationships, we all know families where the kids just don’t get along at all. It goes beyond the normal spats to full-fledged sibling rivalry or it results in a relationship that exists in name only.
I worried about the sibling dynamic when my second child was born, and then my third. Would they just coexist in the same home, or would they build friendships with each other that would last?
Over the years, we have deliberately looked for ways to get past the sibling spats and cultivate solid sibling friendships that will keep them closely bonded for life. We’ve found things that have worked, and we continue to look for ways to strengthen those brother and sister bonds.
Tips for encouraging sibling friendships
1. Start young. Call brothers and sisters best friends from their earliest years. Put the idea in their minds that the other little people in the house aren’t competitors for attention and affection – they’re best friends and the perfect playmates.
2. Give each child equal attention and affection. Make sure the kids see and feel that you love them all. Sure, kids need different things at different stages, so you may have to spend more time with an infant, or one kid may just be naturally more prone to snuggling up with you on the couch. But don’t show ongoing favor toward one over others. Parental favoritism can breed contempt among siblings.
3. Actively find and develop common interests among siblings. Sometimes they love the same things naturally, but other times you have to work to find that connection. If it’s tough for you as a parent to find common ground among them, think how hard it is for the kids to make those connections on their own. Keep looking for things that bring them together.
My boys were born two years apart, and then my daughter was born three years later. Due to both age and gender, it’s natural for her to sometimes feel left out. Over the years we’ve tried to be especially cognizant to find ways to include her and find activities they all can do together.
When my boys were six and four, my daughter was one. They said they didn’t want her touching their stuff, she was too little to play with them, etc. And of course she always wanted to touch their stuff and play with them. When they were driving little cars around on the floor and she grabbed one, we started pretending she was the mechanic and was fixing it. Soon, they were crashing the cars on purpose to give them to her to “fix,” and she was thrilled to be part of the action. When the boys played soccer in the back yard and she couldn’t keep up with them, we encouraged her to be their cheerleader on the sidelines. Sometimes parents need to get creative to find ways to connect kids.
4. Make it fun to be together. Have family game nights and movie nights. Try interesting science experiments in your kitchen. Play basketball together as a family. Go hiking. Train and run a 5k together. Bake together. Go on a quest to find the best bakery in town. Start a book club. Write a silly story together. See who can draw the funniest picture. Just find ways to be present and together, building happy family memories with activities that help the kids bond.
5. Use electronic devices wisely. In today’s modern world, it’s easy for kids to pursue their own interests with individual electronic devices. Sometimes they just need to be told to put them down and connect with other humans in person. And sometimes electronics can bring people together. When my kids wanted Minecraft for the XBox, I was happy to learn they could all play it together. They enjoy working as a team in Minecraft world and have a good time together. It’s one of the ways we’ve found for my oldest son and my daughter to share an activity, considering their five-year age gap.
6. Make them work together / help each other. Forced togetherness is not the ideal way to build sibling friendships, and too much parental coercion will backfire. If older kids are constantly tasked with helping the younger, that’s not necessarily going to build friendship. However, friends help each other. It’s good to get brothers and sisters used to the idea that they’re a team. Give them a cleaning task to complete together, have them help each other review spelling words for school, just find a positive goal they can work toward together. Make it something that enables mutual contributions, without a disproportionate burden on one child.
If you notice that they voluntarily work together on their own, praise them. That internal drive to help each other is foundational for friendship, and you can foster it with your encouragement and recognition for the things they are doing well together.
7. Don’t tolerate name calling, put downs, and other negative behavior. Bad behavior is rampant in the modern world, and kids can pick it up anywhere by observation. It’s important to teach kids respect for others, starting in their own home. Hurtful words and actions can have lasting effects and drive wedges between siblings that are hard to overcome. Correct kids when they throw out insults or start physical fighting, and require that they give a sincere apology. Teach them to use words to communicate about problems in a way that is respectful toward the other party.
8. Don’t intervene in everything. I’ve read where many adults say domineering parents hampered their sibling relationships. Siblings have to be allowed to have their own unique relationships. So I don’t jump into everything that happens among them. With squabbles, they have to work out some things on their own and in their own ways. I just facilitate a solution if it escalates.
I also have to remind myself sometimes to just let them be. It’s getting really boisterous in the house? They’re just having fun together. They’re making a huge mess with some game they’re making up? They can clean it up later. It’s OK. My OCD can take a backseat to their childhood bonding for a while.
Do you have other tips for what to do (or not do) for encouraging sibling friendships? I’d love to hear from you!
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