An angry word. A brow furrows. Toes dig in; an argument ensues.
Left to their own defenses, sibling relationships can become contentious at best. So, what’s a parent to do?
As our family grew, my husband and I quickly noticed that dividing lines were drawn more quickly than hugs were offered. Cross words broke little hearts, and the fact that they were spoken by somebody as close as a sibling made the offense far more hurtful than if a stranger had spoken the same.
Because we knew that our children would have one another longer than they would have us, we made it a priority to put rules in place that would build stronger connections and reduce hurt feelings. Some ideas:
When we brought my second son home from the hospital, I came into our home, sat my 18-month-old on the floor and set my newborn in front of him. With a smile and a sincere tone, I said, “Daddy and I got you a present.” And this is the truth. With each little one that we have added to our family, we have given a gift to them all. We expect, every day, that our children try to remember how blessed they are to have one another. We expect them to love one another, to honor one another, and treat each other kindly. Does it look like that every day? It does not. But I know this: I want my children to have a close relationship because from where I stand, I know there is a lot of life coming. I know they are going to need one another. I know that they are going to celebrate together and grieve side by side. It matters that they learn to rise above their differences, to embrace one another, to communicate clearly and to love each other well. So that is what we expect.
Remove the word mine. With children 18 months apart, we knew that babies were being born into our family at the same time our older children became strict about ownership. In an effort to curtail this, we began to teach our children a more helpful word. "Ours." We sought to replace "mine" with "ours," as in, “this box of Legos is ours.” Toys were shared, gifts became communal, and stress was relieved. While we still had to teach our children to take turns, we struggled less with individualistic ownership and possessing.
Children who comprehend only the basics of language may well want to say "you are X." "You're mean, you're ugly, you're the problem." It's a simple formula and sinfully satisfying in how it puts the blame on someone else. But we sought to eliminate that formula in favor of something that's not character assassination at it's core. Use your words to say what you want, as in "I want a turn!" Use your words to complain about the situation if you must, as in "That's not fair!" or "I'm bored!" Those things are about circumstances, but name-calling is about disrespecting people, so we made it a habit to redirect the target when necessary.
When our children hit a rough patch and began to fuss at one another, we would encourage them to work it out. If it continued, we instituted what we call “Co-operation Chores.” If two (or more) children bickered or argued, it was a sign to us that they needed to learn to co-operate in a much more harmonious manner. To help teach this, we would give a special task to those kids that they would need to do together. Usually this was an unpleasant job that would take some time to accomplish. Our favorite was to have all the dishes washed and dried by hand. We found that the task might begin with continued bickering but that, as time went by, giggles replaced groans and the activity became a way to reset the relationship to a healthier state.
God put your family together. Our children come into our families wired in many different ways. Some days, it may feel impossible to encourage a strong sibling bond. But it is not an accident that we have been called to live together. Your family is part of God's greater plan. God did not mistakenly give us the children in our homes. No, we have been offered a gift that takes a lifetime to unwrap. And the lessons we learn from one another will be ones we can understand in no other way.
God promises that that he will see his work through to completion. As parents, we can throw our hands up in frustration and claim there is no way to get around the bickering and fights that break out. But in giving up, we give in. If we instead pull our children close and teach them truth, we can help them catch a vision for the relationship we want them to have. We can value connection, shared faith, and respect, and we can teach our children to do the same. God promises to give wisdom to all those who ask for it.
Living in love is what God called us to do. 1 John 2:10 tells us, "Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble." As we love one another, we live into God's kingdom desire for us.
And when our children are grown, we will see that all of this work was worth the time when our adult children know that someone is always in their corner, someone always has their back.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster