“You love him more than me. She has more ice cream. Why does he get to stay up later than I do?” While these and other cries of unfairness are common among siblings, you can do so much to shift the relationship dynamic away from sibling rivalry toward family harmony. The secrets to teaching your children to get along lie in creating a climate of cooperation, responsibility, and kindness. When you pay careful attention to how your children treat each other, the result will be peace in your family today and a long lasting friendship between your children tomorrow.
Intervene when they argue. There’s a big difference between fighting and problem-solving. When children routinely come to blows over how to play a game or choose a book, they need you to help them figure out how to respect boundaries. Let go of the thinking that it’s better for your children to work it out, especially if behavior frequently escalates and gets physical. Teach conflict resolution skills by reviewing the rules before the game, by role modeling how to take turns, and by giving them another chance to use the cooperation skills you’ve taught them in times of peace. Taking things away or telling them to stop arguing will never teach them healthy techniques for getting along.
Introduce random acts of kindness. There is nothing harder to do—or more insincere—than forcing an angry child to apologize. Instead, during calm moments, talk to your children about how to make amends for hurting a person’s feelings by doing good deeds. Kind actions, like putting away your sister’s toys or writing your brother a nice note, foster a more loving connection between children, keeping the focus off offending behaviors. Be sure to give your children a chance to cool down before expecting them to choose an action.
Avoid comparisons. Nothing causes more short and long term damage to the sibling dynamic than comparing academic or extracurricular achievements. Give honest, specific feedback to each of your children about their personal strengths as well as the skills each needs to strive for, but don’t compare accomplishments in an attempt to motivate.
Have them share a room. Everyone’s heard stories of children using tape to divide a room or about the arguments over who will turn out lights, yet these common conflicts ultimately teach cooperation and compromise. Some of the best bonding between siblings can be found in the dark—over nighttime conversations and giggles—when siblings share a room. If you make this decision, be proactive in setting the stage and teaching compromise.
Predict, prevent, and prepare. If your children have trouble getting along every time they sit down to do homework or share a meal, then you’ve got a pattern of behavior. Situations with predictable trouble spots require a proactive plan for handling challenges. Take a few moments before they begin, to review your expectations and give your children options for working things through. Of course if a situation puts your children at high risk for arguing, stay nearby to guide the problem-solving.
You have the most power to shape a healthy sibling relationship when your children are getting along, not when they are arguing. Take the time to tell them what they already do to treat each other respectfully and lovingly. Your children want to get along; they simply need someone to show them how.
Lynne Griffin teaches family studies at the graduate level in Boston and internationally. She's the author of the parenting guide Negotiation Generation, and the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer. You can find her online at www.LynneGriffin.com, at www.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.