“Mum, he hit me!” “You’re stupid!” “LEAVE – ME – ALONE!!!”. Do any of these sound familiar? Avoiding arguments between our children entirely may be an impossible task - humans, after all, are born inherently selfish - but we can go some way toward reducing them, and helping our children develop friendships which will see them through the school years and hopefully into adult life.
I’m no parenting expert (many of you know my kids, and I’m sure you know they are not perfect and do not always relate perfectly to each other!) but here are a few things I find helpful in being intentional about building their companionship.
1. Set an expectation of friendship from the outset.
Very young children will happily accept statements which refer to siblings as friends and playmates: ‘Lachlan and Katie are your good friends’ or ‘It’s great fun playing at the park together with Lachlan and Katie’. As they get older, you can talk to them about the importance of respecting and cherishing each other, and the idea of being lifelong friends.
2. Build faith and character
As we help our kids to grow closer to Jesus and become more sensitive to His Spirit, slowly (SO slowly!) a likeness to Christ will begin to flow out into their relationships. Imagine how sibling relationships would look if the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control – were evident all the time! Remember to actively help build these traits rather than just berating our children when they are lacking (“Look, Charlie bear is helping Zoe bear to wash her dishes!; Let’s be kind to Katie today by picking her some flowers).
3. Allow appropriate expression of frustration.
When children use words like “I hate you!” or “You stupid idiot!”, you can let them know that this is disrespectful and will not be allowed. At the same time, acknowledge the feeling behind the words. Alternatives to teach might be “I feel really frustrated that the baby knocked down my tower” or “That made me feel sad and angry, please leave me alone for a while”.
4. Manage the environment
If a particular situation is causing constant tension, try to be creative in altering it. Maybe an older child could be given their own corner of a desk or bench, to keep constructions away from the toddler. Consider giving private spaces even in shared bedrooms, eg “you are only allowed on your sister’s bed with her permission”.
5. Find common ground.
Variations in age, gender and personality can lead to widely different interests and a lack of commonality. However, often siblings will have something in common such as an interest in Star Wars or sports, a love of creating fantasy worlds, or a desire to build cubbies. If you pay attention to the times they play well together, you can kick-start a game at key moments. If you have more than two children you may need to make time for just two to be together at a time, with their shared interest.
6. Guard their inboxes
Of course this again applies to much more than just the sibling issue, but it is relevant here. So many of the TV shows and books and internet content available today, particularly for older children, undermine the qualities we are trying to build. Young heroes are often rude, snarky or disrespectful to their families and others. Teenaged characters are portrayed rolling their eyes and trying to get rid of the ‘annoying’ younger siblings. As always, try to guard their eyes and ears, and talk through any questionable content.
7. Quiet words alone
It is easy to criticise kids ‘in the moment’ in front of each other, but sometimes the most effective way to help them is to speak to them later, alone. If you notice that Big Sister deliberately stirs up Little Brother until he snaps, have a quiet word to her later about the issue. Maybe she could identify the triggers to this behaviour and brainstorm how to manage them, or have a say in which negative consequences you will apply if she continues.
My final comment is that all of the above takes time. Time with our kids. Time to be present. How easy it is to get caught up in the societal push for to work ever increasing hours, trying to squeeze in hobbies, sports, and church and social commitments in around the edges. But at what cost? Do the daycare and OOSH workers have the same commitment as we do, to build Christlikeness and character into our children? Do the older children, left at home alone or with each other, have the maturity to make wise decisions about how to spend their time and relate well to each other? Do we arrive home stressed and exhausted, and leave them to sort out their own arguments because we are too tired or too busy catching up with the chores?
I have not got the balance right yet, and perhaps I never will. Sometimes I despair of my children’s continued squabbles on a subject that I have taught, encouraged and admonished them on. But as I compose this article in my head, we are nearing the end of a 9-hr car trip together which, although not entirely squabble-free, was actually quite enjoyable and I allow myself to think maybe, just maybe, they will one day be able to decide on my nursing home together, without it coming to blows.
Snippets of typical conversation in car trip to Wodonga.
L – OK, come on, lets name the flowers we pass. Frangipani, pointsiana, Hibiscus....
T – Pointsiana, bottlebrush
B - Bottlebrush
J – Green leaves, Spiky leaves, round leaves, spiderwebby leaves....
D – Rowland family leaves. [Newcastle]
L – Eucalypt, geranium....
D – marijuana.
Ben bored and squirmy.
L – look, Ben, look at the two dogs in the back of the Ute.
B – where, I can’t see them.
J & T – THERE, Ben, out your window.
B [Looks again then turns away from window to face us and say “I can’t see ANYTHING there”, just at the moment we pass right by the dogs.
J&T THERE Ben, you just missed them!
B – (starts to get upset)
L – nevermind Benny, you’ve seen dogs before.
D – But not these dogs. These were the BEST dogs EVER. They were tap dancing and playing banjos!
(This makes fuel for further conversation about the tap-dancing, banjo-playing dogs when they next come into view, at which point Ben does actually see them).