Rethinking Sibling Rivalry

When my oldest son comes home from college for a visit we are all so excited to see him, the younger children especially. It’s lovely to watch him reconnect with his teenage brother and disappear into a room to catch up, or take his youngest brother out for breakfast when no one else is up, or snuggle with his little sister on the couch for an episode of “My Little Pony.” The nature of their relationship as siblings, and as friends, shines through in these moments.

Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I need a whistle to referee their incessant bickering, but I think there is a difference between normal, we live together and get under each other’s skin type of bickering, and real discord.

I am saddened when I see young siblings display blatant disrespect for one another, and parents who chalk this up to normal “sibling rivalry.” Over time, the nastiness might reach a toxic level, and I can’t help but think these siblings won’t want much to do with each other when they have a choice later on.

So what are some ways we can consciously help our kids build healthy relationships with one another? There’s probably no magic recipe, but here are a few things we try to do in our house:

Foster a culture of respect and healthy communication between them.

The other day three of my four were just absolute monsters. One kept going into another’s room without permission to steal a coveted charger. One was constantly tattling. And the third was getting physical with the other two out of sheer frustration. I needed a megaphone never mind a whistle!

We sat them down and told them they were driving us nuts and needed to work it out. Their assignment was to go off together, acknowledge one thing they knew they were doing that was disrespectful to the others, and then offer a solution to correct the behavior. Turns out they were pretty self-aware and confessed quickly to their own part in the madness. By having them approach the situation this way, we encouraged them to take responsibility for their own actions vs. blame each other, and we didn’t allow the bad feelings to linger.

Respect and good communication skills are a cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Why shouldn’t good habits begin with siblings?

Allow them space from one another.

My sister, a girlfriend, and I had an impromptu girls’ night at my house last week. Once dinner was over I shooed my swarming children to their own rooms and told them to entertain themselves. We girls had to catch up.

My brood are used to mom and dad having date night, dad having guys’ night, mom’s book club, and numerous other events to which they are explicitly not invited. So I think it’s perfectly acceptable, necessary even, to allow them space with their own friends minus annoying sibling interruptions. If one has a play date, then I make sure the others are out of the way.

It’s also important they learn to respect each other’s personal space. It's a rule to knock before entering anyone else’s room and to ask before borrowing someone else's things.

In a family we obviously have to share, but it’s equally important we learn to respect each other's boundaries and privacy.

Require them to care for each other.

When my oldest son was fourteen, he was home babysitting while I was at dinner with some friends. About an hour in, he called to say the baby was sick (the baby was actually three and a half, but as with youngest children, she will be forever known as “the baby”). I told him I’d be right home. “No,” he said. “I’ve given her a bath and changed her pajamas. The sheets are in the laundry and I put the sleeping bag on her bed. I stayed with her until she fell asleep and she seems fine now.”

I nearly cried. Not only is this one going to make a great daddy some day, but his sister will remember the love and care she received from him, even if she doesn’t remember the exact event.

My kids certainly aren’t raising each other, but I think giving them some responsibility for one another has real value.

Cultivate a relationship with each of them as individuals.

My husband and I had a plan when spacing our children. The rule was no two in college at the same time. This worked great for the first three and then number four came along twenty-two months later. Best laid plans and all that. 

But the age gap between the first three allowed me to spend quality time with a new baby while the others were off at school. Then my attention could switch, guilt-free, to the older kids later in the day. It helped me establish a relationship with each of them as individuals.

Of course the more kids there are, or the closer in age, the more difficult it becomes to carve out one-on-one time. But it’s still important. We’ll often forgo large birthday parties and do something special with just the birthday child. One of my favorite memories is taking our third son to Fenway Park for a Sox game on his tenth birthday. He’s a huge baseball fan, but I know he treasured the time alone with us almost as much as he enjoyed watching the game. 

We try hard to honor our kids as individuals, and we find opportunities to explore their unique interests with them whenever possible.

Sibling relationships are a training ground for adult relationships, and our siblings can be built-in best friends if these relationships are nurtured. My relationship with my sister is one of my most treasured. I want that for my kids. And I think it’s working, most days!