When I was pregnant with my second child, I worried that my first would somehow receive less because he would have to share our attention. My wise pediatrician calmed these fears by saying, “You’re giving your child the greatest gift any parent can give a child – a sibling.” Now that my children are grown, I couldn’t agree more. However, I know it’s sometimes difficult to relay that sentiment to young children. This is apparent in my twin grandchildren, Allie and Nella, who have never known a time when the other wasn’t around. They are just beginning to truly enjoy playing with each other, but they are also learning that there’s a price to be paid – they have to be willing to share and take turns. This doesn’t come naturally to 2-year-olds, but I’m fascinated by the negotiating skills they are developing and how strong a motivator the desire to play together is.
Most siblings face similar issues managing their space and time, playing side by side and asserting their own identities. I watched a young colleague of mine deal with the adjustment period her oldest son went through when she brought his younger brother home from the hospital. Having to share his parents’ time and attention stirred those feelings of jealousy that we call rivalry. She did a wonderful job of explaining to the older one why the baby needed so much care and attention, but that things would change as his baby brother grew older and they could play together. It took patience and lots of talking together, but in time the brothers developed a very special bond – the kind that only siblings can develop. I have observed commonalities in the respectful way in which parents treat children while helping them understand and deal with frustration that seems to alleviate sibling stressors and strengthen the bond of friendship.
April 10 is National Sibling Day, the perfect time to focus on helping your children strengthen sibling bonds and learn to appreciate the lifelong friend they have in each other:
Avoid over-scheduling shared time. Wanting to give their children the “very best” can lead parents to over-organize or over-schedule, which means they may miss opportunities for meaningful time together. A great way to balance the tendency to over-schedule is to plan more structured events for one weekend day and leave the second day open for less structured family activities. Ask children to work together to decide what activities they wish to do that weekend. If they can’t agree, compromise by allowing each child to pick an activity for the day and do both! If one child has a last-minute play date, use it as an opportunity to steal the other away for some special time with you. This is a great opportunity to listen to individual children’s interests and perspectives and take them on separate, spontaneous outings.
Spread your attention. Give each child a chance to have your undivided attention every day. An easy way to do this is to ask each to tell you about his or her day. If the other child interrupts, say, “I really want to hear your story, but I’m listening to your sister right now. You can tell me about your day when she is done.” Another opportunity to give each child your individual attention is to stagger bedtimes. This one-on-one time while being tucked in allows you to listen to and acknowledge each child’s needs and interests.
Support individual identities. Parents of multiple children have probably heard some version of the familiar protest, “But I’m older – why do I have to go to bed at 7:30 too?” With busy schedules, it is sometimes tempting to try to streamline things by grouping children together in terms of interests, abilities, wishes or even consequences. Next time you hear yourself say, “My children like …,” stop and ask yourself if you really are talking about what each child actually likes or thinks. We have to consciously remind ourselves that our children are different people with different personalities and that they deserve and need the ability to express their personal preferences independently.
Fair is not equal. We sometimes get ourselves into a bind by trying to always make sure we treat children equally to be fair to them. Because children have different personalities and interests and are most likely at different stages of development, this is not really possible. Avoid letting your children put you in the bind of trying to always keep things even. Respecting children individually can alleviate jealousy between siblings and make each child feel secure and loved for who he is.
Lay a foundation of shared memories. A common desire of parents is that their children will be close when they grow up. That’s where shared memories and adventures come into play. Create lifelong memories with family game nights, trips to the aquarium, holiday traditions or afternoons spent playing sports. Document these events – big or small – with photos, memory books or journaling to cement those moments in memory. As time passes, these shared adventures form a common bond between siblings for years to come.
To this day, my children retell hilarious stories that only they know how to tell. This is a bond that is lasting and defines them as siblings. I wish this for your children and loved ones.