Let’s start with some sappy sincerity, shall we?
There’s no greater joy in life than watching my boys pal around with one another.
They’ll build LEGOs together while humming a rock song, scooch up close on a big empty couch, practice Jedi skills with complete seriousness, make and execute plans that involve dirt and wood and bricks, and laugh so hard they both end up on the floor in stitches.
All the while my husband and I watch with big heart-eyes.
And yet. Parenting brothers and sisters can be really tough. Studies tell us that disagreements among siblings pop up multiple times an hour, and bigger conflicts like fighting, stealing, and name-calling are pretty commonplace as well.
Greatest gift, biggest challenge. Thankfully, we can encourage more positive interactions and help our kids be better prepared for negative ones with a few routine practices.
A quick note: I’m no expert. In fact, I’m still learning what it means to parent siblings well.
One of my favorite books on this subject is Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I also appreciate the work of Ralphie Jacobs and Dr. Becky Kennedy in informing how we handle sibling relationships in our home.
Five Things Every Kid Needs for Better Sibling Relationships
Like with most things in parenting, we’re better off if we tackle problems proactively rather than waiting around for them to pop up again. That’s why the first four items we’ll discuss are designed to take place in moments of peace. In our home they’re just part of the routine.
And when sibling conflict happens—because you know it does—we have a plan for that too.
After all, a home without conflict isn’t an achievable or worthwhile goal. Our kids are going to argue. And we, as loving parents, are here to help them through it.
We can do this by giving our kids:
1. Time alone
In our home this looks like an hour or two a day for each kid to think, create, and play without the influence of another person. This space allows younger siblings to feel autonomous and older siblings to move at whatever pace suits them best. Oftentimes, our boys come out ready and excited to jump back into mostly harmonious play.
2. Time together
Brothers and sisters need regular opportunities for shared joy. Think: fun, physical, bonding, or ritual. You might teach your kids a lighthearted game like paper football, set up a sprinkler in the backyard, challenge them to accomplish a difficult task together, or schedule a weekly sibling sleepover complete with a movie in one of their bedrooms.
3. A special place in our heart
As parents, we love each of our children deeply and uniquely, but do our kids know it? We can tell them with our words and with our actions as we spend time getting to know them as individuals and inviting them out for one-on-one adventures. This tip isn’t just for feel-goods. Research shows that as kids understand what makes them special in a parent’s eyes, they soften toward their siblings.
4. Recognition and reminders
We said it before: parenting siblings is a gift and a challenge. The same is true for being a sibling. Right? Our kids know this, so we might as well own up to it. In our family we repeat two key phrases on the regular:
- “Being a big brother / little brother can be tough!”
- “You boys can be friends for life if you treat each other with kindness and respect.”
In this way, we acknowledge the struggle and help our kids see the payoff: a built-in, lifelong friend. And all that’s required, really, is that they are respectful and kind to one another. A tall order on some days, sure, but doable overall.
5. The skills to work things out (and a whole lot of practice)
You can try every trick in the book and you’ll still occasionally find your kids in a screaming match; or a he-said, she-said; or maybe even a knock-down, drag-out.
Thankfully, these moments are begging for a life lesson. Teach your kids to listen to one another, to respond with kindness, to share their true feelings, and to work toward resolution. Guide these conversations as needed, sit back and oversee when you can, and, eventually, you might say, “You kids work it out and report back to me.”
Parents can dream, can’t we?