How to Raise Kids Who Like Each Other (For Life)
Parenting siblings with guidance and respect reinforces a natural friendship.
Be a good citizen of the world, be a good spouse, be a good parent. In the broadest of terms, these are the coming-of-age markers of successful parenting and the decisive intent behind such common refrains as, “Don’t hit your sister” and “Flush the toilet when you’ve finished.”
To raise children who thrive academically and socially, consume three servings of vegetables a day, bypass life’s more insidious temptations and manage to empathetically respond to others with kindness and respect is akin to Atlas’ burden to bear the weight of the sky itself.
Getting siblings to care deeply for each other — indeed, seek out one other — too? It’s overwhelming, to say the least.
“One of the most profound effects siblings have on you is that area of conflict resolutions skills, that area of relationship formation and maintenance,” said science writer Jeffrey Luger, author of “The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us” in an NPR interview. “When kids are in playrooms, those skills they practice again and again and again are taken out with them to the playground and to the classroom and to life later on. And a lot of studies do show that conflict resolution skills that are evident when kids are two tend to be used when kids are five, and they’re in preschool and kindergarten.”
Parents with a nuanced sense of their children’s development can intuit that a conflict-free relationship between brothers and sisters is not necessarily the same as cultivating friendship. Frequently policing squabbles or sequestering kids into segregated schedules in order to prevent conflict in the first place stunts the ability for the sibling bond to develop.
So what will develop such rich adult experiences that involve your child’s very first friends? Three ideas emerge as the guiding forces for enduring sibling love.
Does a double standard exist for the way your children respond to their siblings in conflict as opposed to their response to you, the parent? For children, parents are the epitome of modeling how to communicate. This means establishing the norm that conflict is inevitable, but that it’s no more acceptable to throw things at brother or sister than it is to throw things at mom or dad.
Anger is the opportunity for parents to intervene with active listening, empathizing in turn while refraining from interrupting. As with most parenting best practices, teaching children the skills to effectively engage with other children, future co-workers and — not least of all — their siblings, is a long-term commitment to the process of shaping a child’s character.
What if you model conflict resolution for your children without allowing room to practice the very skills you’ve made a priority? Drawing the line at bullying and bloodshed, home is the one place that kids can safely hone their conflict resolution skills surrounded by people more prone to gift them with second, third and fourth chances.
Which isn’t to say that parents should omit themselves altogether.
When a young child of 4 years old interacts with a 7-year-old, they’re choices for play and the emotions that they respond with will vary greatly. Similarly, personality patterns matter: some children dictate activities, some dominate all the turns, some devolve quickly into tantrums and tears. MIldly intervening with a reminder to “treat others as you would like to be treated” and a quick “I know you can solve this conflict together” can disrupt bad habits and, hopefully, prevent a lifetime of antagonism.
Beyond suggesting the obvious — “Why don’t you play with your sister? — are you stacking the deck with toys that siblings can play with together?
Imaginatively “open” toys — blocks, legos, castles — allow children the freedom to build and establish together worlds of their creating.
For siblings whose genders, ages, or schedules simply do not overlap, it’s important to reinforce the idea that family members support each other. Requesting. and ultimately requiring, that kids attend each other’s recitals and significant events may inspire pushback, but it also encourages siblings to get to know one another in a more complex way. A child may sulk in the audience of his brother’s play in the moment, but as he gets older, this memory fleshes out the image of his brother as funny, confident, and naturally gifted.
Families live beneath the same roof, sharing the same food, parents, and toys, but how can children get to know their siblings’ hearts? How can they learn what makes them happy? How do they feel or look when they’re doing what they’re passionate about?
A fundamental part of adoring people is embracing what you know of them, after all: talents, passions, pet peeves, hobbies, habits and all. Guide your children today on a path that connects their adult lives with the best of their now.