We’ve decided to dive straight in to our new ‘Tuesday Tips’ series with a weighty discussion about sibling rivalry! We hope you’re up for it, and we really hope you’ll share your tips and experiences too. Here goes…
Growing up in a big family, the eldest of five children, I remember how important it was to my mother that my siblings and I were friends. It was a worse offence in our house to hurt your sister’s feelings than it was to be told off in school or to forget to do your chores. Get in a fight with a schoolmate and you were given a stern talking to. Get in a fight with your sibling and you could feel the deep disappointment before she ever said a word. My mom always maintained that her biggest goal as a mother was to raise children who liked each other, and it was this goal, above others, that guided her parenting practices throughout our childhood.
I remember when I was pregnant with my second baby and we found out we were having another boy. Sitting there in the ultrasound clinic, it became immediately apparent what my mother had been talking about for all those years. The only thing I could think of was how much I hoped my two boys would become the best of friends. Becoming a mother of two, I could feel the focus of my parenting shift: it became less about me and more about them. A loving relationship between my children became, and has remained, my biggest commitment as a mother.
Over the years, as our family has grown from two to now four kids, it’s become even more apparent how much my children are shaped by each other, how their individual personalities are so influenced by their birth order and relationships with their siblings. (Do you remember this post and the article in Time Magazine noting that children are more shaped by their siblings than by anyone else?) Even more reason to ensure that the relationships between my children are happy ones.
Here are a few tips we’ve learned along the way:
1. Don’t compare your children, not even to raise ambitions: Try to resist the temptation to make comparisons with the hopes of encouraging your child to do something. For example, at the dinner table when my kids are eating and Ivy is sitting there eating VERY slowly, my first instinct is to say something to Ivy like “Ivy, hurry up and eat your broccoli. Look at Marlow – she’s eaten all her food already”, but I have to bite my tongue here because I don’t want to create a competition between the girls or pit them against each other.
Thinking back on my own childhood, I remember one sunny summer’s evening, standing with my mom in our backyard watching my three brothers play basketball. My middle brother was so clumsy; he was short, even shorter than my youngest brother, and he couldn’t make a basket no matter how hard he tried. My mom just sat there smiling and encouraging them all. Never once did she let on that my youngest brother was better than my middle brother, not even to light a little fire under his behind. Looking back on it, I think my brother just played because he liked playing with his siblings. He didn’t play to win or to be good at it. And I think my mom didn’t care if he was good either. She was just happy to watch them play together.
2. Resist the temptation to intervene: My natural reaction as a mother is to step in and make sure things are always fair and right, to ensure the older ones aren’t coercing the younger ones into doing what they want, or that the younger ones aren’t just breaking down in tears to get their way. But I’ve learned that actually my children play better when they know I’m not going to get involved in their little disputes or sort out their disagreements for them, and that in most cases when they sort things out for themselves, they usually do so in a pretty fair and decent way. If my kids are playing outside in the garden or upstairs in the playroom, they tend to play better knowing I’m not within earshot of whining or tattle telling. Of course if an argument becomes physical, or if someone’s feelings are really hurt, I will step in. But if they’re fighting over toys, or arguing over who gets to choose the bedtime story, I have learned that sitting on the sidelines and letting them work out their differences is the best approach.
3. Encourage your children to empathise with each other: I was talking to Esther a few days ago and she explained that whenever one of her kids comes to her complaining about their brother or sister being cranky or mean, she tries to encourage them to understand why their sibling is acting this way — perhaps they’re tried, or hungry, or not feeling well (usually it’s something quite simple like this). Esther told me that she wants her kids to understand and empathise with their sibling rather than to immediately feel attacked or be angry with them. Isn’t that so sweet? It’s something I hope to start doing with my kids too.
It also got me thinking about my own siblings and how whenever I have a small argument with one of them, I can usually understand their point of view almost before I start to feel defensive. (Perhaps my mom used the same approach as Esther!) I think it’s such a great problem-solving technique; if only we could employ this with every relationship and with every argument!
4. Encourage your children to share a bedroom (or even a bed): I’ve written before about how my boys share a bed, but I think many of the same benefits can be said of simply sharing a bedroom. I think by giving your children a shared space, it naturally gives them a sense of being on the same team. They have a shared responsibility of keeping their room tidy, making their beds, putting the books away, etc. Plus, the bedtime chats before they fall asleep are just so sweet; the bonding that takes place during this ‘secret’ hour can only bring siblings closer.
5. Ask your kids to help you by helping their sibling: One of the obvious downsides of having several children is the lack of one-on-one time with each of them. It is something I’m constantly aware of and always trying to improve on. The benefit, however, is that your children rely more on each other, and it creates a sense of teamwork between them. I remember when Marlow was born, I asked for a lot of help from the older kids with her, and it helped to encourage a nurturing relationship with the baby and it built up their confidence as care-givers to their younger sister. I don’t always have time to sit down and read with all of my kids in the afternoons, but I will ask Easton to listen to Ivy read and help her with words she doesn’t know, or often Quin will read to Marlow, or Easton to Quin. (My mama heart!)
6. Allow your kids the opportunity to negotiate their own way with each other: I always use bath time as a perfect example of this. I usually put all my kids into the bath together, and while it’s a bit of a squeeze for them all, it is the perfect time for them to learn important life lessons: like vying for space, sharing and swapping toys, arguing over who gets to sit closest to the faucet and negotiating who must get out first based on the previous bath, etc. Not only do they learn to love and play and care for each other, but also to argue, negotiate, and share.
I’ve recently noticed a new dynamic in our family: because Easton now spends more time reading and doing homework in the afternoons, Quin, who is normally Easton’s playtime pal, is left to play with Ivy or Marlow. The relationship between Quin and Ivy is a somewhat ‘new’ relationship, and I have to admit it hasn’t really been smooth sailing. I guess it all comes down to pecking order and Quin, being the eldest in this relationship, becomes the dominant ‘player’, and Ivy ends up being bossed around or somewhat bullied by Quin (who has always been the sweetest, most loving little boy). I’ve been watching this relationship unfold from a distance and noticing that it is certainly a bit of a rocky one. I’ve decided that it’s important for the two of them to learn how to play with each other even if it means the occasional argument needs to happen, and I’m hoping that it will only strengthen the bond between them, and of course help with other relationships in the future. (At least I’m hoping — I’ll let you know how it goes in a few month’s time.)
So, those are some more general tips and experiences that have worked in our family. I’d love to hear your experiences and any tips you would like to share. Please leave your comments below.
These are such wonderful tips, Courtney! It seems like your childhood in a big family has really shaped your parenting. I especially like your tips to stand back and let your children negotiate between themselves. Those are such important skills that will get them so far in life. As an only child who hopes to have multiple children someday, I will not have any past experiences of my own to guide me – so these are the kinds of tips I will really appreciate!
Thoroughly insightful piece of writing Courtney, your own upbringing has given you such a positive foundation on which to raise your own children. I always try to let my three children negotiate their arguments etc but it rarely ends well and they get physical and then I have to step in. I would be interested to hear if your readers have similar experiences to my own and how they proceed from there. As I said, great piece! 🙂 x
This is such an excellent post – great first topic for the new series. All of your tips are in line with what my husband and I are trying to do with our girls, but often slip (comparing at dinner, intervening arguments, etc). Great advice all around. We’ve found great success in having our eldest help with our youngest — she takes pride in helping, and we’ve seen their relationship blossom because our little one likes the extra attention from her big sister. Thanks again!
As always, wonderful post! Such a great reminder that kids need to be kids, and as much as we want to intervene – sometimes the role of parents is best served from the sidelines. Thank you for your insights, I constantly need to remind myself to stop the comparisons … I too have a slow eater 🙂 xo
Thank you, Courtney, for sharing such thoughtful ideas on a profound topic. Just a thought… perhaps Quin felt a little usurped by Ivy, when she was born. Maybe he’s not used to being the leader, so isn’t as confident in his role. Or maybe he’s feeling/testing his power. He seems in a hard spot…not the eldest boy, not the youngest, not the pretty girl. I’m the eldest of five too, and my mother encouraged empathy, as she believed it could cure the world’s ills. I’m feeling empathy for Quin!
Regarding the new Ivy-Quin relationship, it reminds me of a dynamic I have seen in my husband’s family (of 7 siblings!). For a long time, there were two in there, a boy and a girl, who were ALWAYS on each other’s nerves. Now, though, they are the closest pair of the whole bunch! Of course that is oversimplifying and of course there were many fights and tears, but still! It amazes me.
My kids are 3.5 (boy) and 1.5 (girl). They are getting to be such good little friends and this friendship is one of the main reasons I hesitate to put my older one in any kind of school. I know that all the time they’ve spent together has helped solidify their bond… Can you speak to the experience of having kids go do school? When did your oldest one start going? I would really appreciate your words of wisdom on this one!
As an aside, we do hope to have lots more kiddos…at least 4 I always say : )
Looking forward for the answer on this one. How does school get involved?
Courtney… You are such an inspiration and rock to me as I go through the wonders of motherhood. I lost my mother 3 years ago and I really rely on others advice and thoughts to guide me through tough times. I have 2 beautiful girls … (1 and 3 years), when is a good time to let them share a room? I worry about my younger daughter settling and therefore disturbing the eldest? … Xxx
Thank you Courtney, this is very inspiring article!
I’ll probably get flamed on here for saying this, but is sibling rivalry (within reason) such a bad thing ? I believe squabbling, a little jealousy and hero worshipping are all normal traits. Children have to explore them and learn how to deal with them in order to turn into rounded adults.
I completely agree that family needs to respect one another, but where my approach differs is in that I don’t think ‘forcing’ them together is the answer. I shared a bedroom with a sibling until I was about 12, I have another much older sibling who would have been too old to share with. Undeniably I was closer to the one I shared a room with until I reached adulthood. Now, I am much closer to my eldest sibling. Dynamics change.
Sharing baths and rooms is a necessity for some but I would strongly disagree that it bonds you for life. For my family having your own space to cool off and do your own thing is very important. We make family times in other ways like meals together, board games and family walks. We also have little rules like not talking over one another and always put your sibling before friends.
Ultimately isn’t it pot luck though ? You are never going to make best buddies out of a child who hates the outdoors and is bookish and one who is an adrenaline junkie and hates reading. They can learn to respect one another but I’m not going to be devastated if they aren’t best friends. As long as my kids get along most of the time and have happy, healthy relationships in and out of the home I’m a happy mummy.
Thank you Courtney-and everyone else for taking the time to share your thoughts. I always find it valuable and interesting to read or hear others’ views and what works in other families. I can definitely relate to the feeling of wanting children to develop strong family bonds and friendships…I have 4 children ranging in age from nearly 2 to 9 and my biggest wish is that they would all just get along!
I appreciate Mel’s thoughts particularly-I think it is important to consider the personality of each child as an individual as well. For instance, my oldest is a high anxiety, high strung, very sensitive girl. For her, sharing a bedroom would be a disaster. She really needs that downtime for at least a little bit each day to regroup and unwind and allow her time to recover from school and the toll of having to negotiate and compromise. We don’t let her hole up in her room by any means, but I do feel it is important to respect her need for some quiet time and she is much better able to handle sibling interactions for having done so. On the other hand, my two middle girls (5 and 6) share a room and do so beautifully.
Great post, really interesting ideas. Number 5 really hits home for me. I have two 6 year old girls and a newborn. The older girls have been super helpful with the baby and, because they are so much older, they really are an asset! But I find myself worrying about asking too much of them when it comes to the baby. Will they end up resenting her down the road because of it? Or should I just capitalize on and encourage their enthusiasm for their new sister? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and experiences!
Beautiful post! And I am always wondering about this topic. I only have one child but more will be coming and growing up there were SO much arguements in between my sister and I. We are 6 years apart which can explain a few things but I always worry that because we did not manage to make our relationship blossom I will not be able to pass on helpful hints and the right attitude to my own children. Just like you I want my children to get on because I have witnessed first hand all the benefits a good sibling relationship can bring, especially into adulthood. I also think that the way we treat each other as parents is key for siblings to get along, if they see mum and dad respecting each other, disagreeing as well but in a constructive manner, uplifting one another with words and special attentions, then surely this can at least be an opportunity for children to see how a healthy relationship is nurtured.
I’ve never commented here before, but I am excited to see what else you all have up your sleeves for this series.
I am the oldest of two, and only have one child myself (for now!), but I am a preschool teacher and I love your point to resist the urge to intervene. When my preschoolers come to me with a problem they have with a classmate, I always thank them for sharing their problem with me because I always want them to feel comfortable approaching me, but I direct them back to their classmate first. “Have you talked to so-and-so about this?” If they have, I may help them with how to communicate differently, send them off for another try, and then intervene if they are working hard to no avail. I think this process truly helps develops life skills needed as an adult.
Thank you soooo much for this, Courtney! I too have two boys as the eldest and who are only 19 months apart – and boy is that rivalry hotting up! I’ll be making it my aim never to compare (too easily done) and to enjoy those bath times instead of wishing the clock ticked faster. Looking forward to next Tuesdays post already!x
Great tips. I only have one daughter so haven’t had to worry about these issues yet. For those of you who may be struggling with this though there is light at the end of the tunnel. My brother and I fought throughout our childhood and are now great friends. It is one of the most important relationships in my life.
Love this new series! What a brilliant idea and love the first post, lovely parenting philosophy and good advice. I was talking with my best friend yesterday about kids disagreements (she has 3 kids, I have 2). At her eldest’s school they have a no ‘tattle tale’ policy which she approves of, although she said sometimes she worries kids won’t speak up if they really need to because of it (ie being hurt!). And I’m currently observing some slight goody two shoes behaviour in my girl – it’s her favourite thing to point out how well she’s behaving and how badly x y z are behaving!! I think it’s related to her new star chart so I’d be interested in heading how you all manage things like that. Also the only parenting book I’ve read over and over is ‘how to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ which is brilliant – highly recommend. ( a lot in there on not comparing or pigeon holing kids ). Then topics, I’m sure I’ll think of loads but right now it would be great to read a post on breast feeding experiences – the good and the bad! Did you all bf? Or formula or mix etc would be interesting to read plus any tips you can share. Other than that good clothes for busy mums! Always love all your style and have bought a few maternity pieces after recommends from this blog (support vests etc), so recommends of good staple wardrobe pieces would be fab ( and skin care and hair care!)
Thanks for the great post! I love the idea of not intervening, as I do that all the time. I know it’s wrong, I going to try very hard now. But I do always practice empathy with them. It’s so important for life, I think, and for siblings especially.
I read someone’s comment about a suggestion on nursery/school entrance. I would love to hear that from you guys!
This is brilliant. Thank you so much, Courtney (and Esther and Emilie). I absolutely adore that having your children truly love and get on with one another is one of your biggest commitments as a parent. It is inspiring. The first tip in particular really hit home as I do try my best to avoid comparing and instigating that type of competition, but I have certainly been guilty of saying something along the lines of “look, your sister’s almost done with her plate” when we’re in a rush. Reading this post has made me realise I really need to be more mindful of even the seemingly little things that I might say and do as they can have a huge affect on the relationship between my kids.
That’s a lovely new serie 🙂
Great tips, Courtney. Thanks for sharing!
I have a boy (6 years old) and a girl (3yo) and I am always trying not to intervene in their arguments, since I believe this situation is just a daily practice for “real life”. I strongly believe that dealing with his sister/her brother different opinions will make them stronger to dealing with their colleagues, partners, bosses on the future.
But I do have to confess that is not easy. It is a constant temptation to intervene and just get the argument over.
And I love the “empathy” tip. Thanks for that, Esther. I will definitely using this one with my kids 🙂
We are in the process of moving and a room large enough for my two boys to share has been top of our list thanks to your other article about the children sharing bedrooms and/or beds. Love the idea and can’t wait to try it.
Definitely food for thought, thank you xx
Nodding my head in agreement throughout the whole post! I appreciate that you took the time to put these tips into words, because while I share the same philosophy – it’s hard sometimes to explain to someone else! I wholeheartedly agree with you that sharing a bed brings siblings together…we practice that here too. I imagine this post made your mom tear up with love – what a testament to all her hard work many years ago :). xoxo
Had to chime in here with thanks for this article. I also have four children, a boy of 8, a girl of 6 and twin girls of 2. Each ‘pair’ shares a bedroom, and we home-educate everyone. My husband and I are each the product of four-child families, so this is the norm for us, although it’s not always easy at all. My purest intentions for a home full of harmony aren’t always in evidence: I’m human after all! I’m really trying my hardest though, with lots of these things that Courtney has enunciated in the back of my mind. I’m going to think carefully about the ‘competition’ one, particularly. Thanks again.
Great post and a very interesting read, but I have to say, with two boys with 3 years age difference: they don’t share (have shared for about 3 years a room) a room – I think now David is getting older (almost 10 years old – where has time gone?!) it is important he has his own space, which does not make his relationship with his brother less close. I think this is also dictated by the larger age gap then fi Easton and Quin, more so than the sharing of a bedroom!
They happily play together (first thing they do in the morning go to each others bedrooms to play together!) but also have their disagreements, often actually caused by competitiveness, which I think is normal and healthy in any relationship and prepares them for real life! I do totally agree with you, I let them battle it out together and more and more often they reach a compromise together;-))
I do not believe nor experience this is making them less best friends: actually I believe it teaches them in a natural way social skills and often brings them closer together. I also believe that you cannot force friendship between siblings, even those who might not get along in childhood, often grow closer in adulthood, which has nothing to do with parenting skills, just different characters/interests or bigger age gap.
I do teach my children: friends can come and go, but family is there forever – and you always look after each other!
Very interesting read! Xxxkim
Parents! please understand that every child is unique, so avoid comparing one with the other child as it might lower their self esteem and demotivate them for the rest of their lives.
Read more on how to avoid sibling rivalry:
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Please more sibling related ‘Tuesday Tips,’ and ‘Thursday Thoughts! Like, an updated post of suggestions on how to encourage siblings to be best friends! Please!