Aren’t We All Supposed To Get Along?

As parents we often wish our children would spend more time being harmonious than hitting. We have a sense that siblings should be enjoying each other much more than they do. One way to assess what is realistic with our children is to spend some time with our memories – what was it like when you were a child? Were you always willing to share? Were you happy to have your little siblings running around your room? Did you receive unconditional love from your older siblings every day of your early life? If we are honest with ourselves, we can remember that when we were young, having a sibling didn’t always bring the joy we are hoping our own children feel when they are together.  The Hopkins Early Childhood staff would like to offer a supportive view of what to expect with siblings, as well as some strategies for helping them to get along.

In their book NurtureShock, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss research findings which conclude that siblings fight with each other, on average, 10 minutes of every hour in which they are playing together. It is expected that siblings will not get along. Young children are learning the rules for social experiences, and they are often experimenting to find out what works. Siblings are an opportunity to practice this social interaction – but children don’t know yet how to do this safely and with grace.  Parents are the key to helping them figure out how to behave with each other. For the early years it is important for parents to provide the structure around play, the tools for positive interaction, and the safety for all children in the house. As your children age, they will apply what they have learned in their home to their lifetime of social relationships.

Safety is, of course, the first concern for parents. When you have two children being aggressive with each other, don’t allow them to duke it out. They do not learn social grace during fistfights. It is helpful to be direct and to get in the middle of the physical altercation and separate the two children. In the heat of this moment it is best not to be too wordy. Simple statements, such as “I will not let you hurt him” or “I will help you stop” can be paired with restraining and separation tactics. It is important for the children to then have an opportunity to cool off.

Often we request children to say they are sorry for the aggression, and this can seem like a good way to create a closure. However, young children do not often have the empathy required for a real feeling of “sorry-ness” when they are asked to apologize. A way to help teach this empathy is to ask the children, after everyone has cooled off, “how can we make this better?”  Often with young children, there isn’t going to be an answer – they are struggling enough with the overwhelming emotion of frustration and sadness and anger that the altercation has caused. For this reason, when our children are young we can pose the question and provide the answer: “How can we make this better….we can take turns with this toy (or we can gently pat the person we hurt, or we can sit quietly until everyone is ready to play again).”

Having structure around our children’s play includes keeping our expectations realistic about what they are capable of doing. Young children are not often capable of sharing until the age of 3 1/2 or 4, and even at this age they are often  not all that excited about sharing with siblings. Structure play with toys around the idea of taking turns rather than sharing. You can talk through this expectation while asking your children to do it: “Your older sibling is using this toy, you can use it after he is done (or after two minutes, or after we sing a song). What do you want to play with while you wait?”  This gives both siblings an opportunity to take ownership around the taking of turns. Remember that the person who was originally holding a toy does not necessarily have to give it up right away – they were, in fact, using it first. However, they are expected to give up their turn in a reasonable amount of time.

Structure your  day so that siblings have fun times together, but also have a daily dose of not having to be together. Absence does, indeed, help the heart grow fonder. Try to focus on fun during together-time so that there is something to look forward to with siblings, something that builds memories and reinforces family traditions and routines. Sharing a meal together (with the children seated apart rather than together) can be a fun together time if the conversation can remain lighthearted. Don’t forget that the time alone should also be a pleasant time, possibly a time for each child to take turns spending special time with one or the other parent, when possible.

Be conscious of the words and actions you use while you are managing your siblings. We can not force our children to be friends – but we can insist on mutual respect in our household. Remember that children under the age of seven tend to learn best through imitation. Children will likely learn to be respectful of each other through watching you be respectful of them and the other caregivers in your life. This is not a lesson that is learned in a week or a month or even a year. It is through thoughtful, consistent and repetitive messaging that your child will learn to act with the social grace we hope for.

The following books offer supportive and practical advice on fostering positive sibling relationships:

  • Help! the Kids Are at It Again: Using Kids’ Quarrels to Teach “People” Skills by Elizabeth Crary
  •  Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings by Nancy Samalin and Catherine Whitney
  • Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

We remember that we did not always appreciate our siblings when we were younger. We also know that as adults we often have come to depend on this relationship – a sibling is the person who has known us the longest, after all. Help your young children begin this relationship with respect and love by offering them tools and skills for getting along with each other during these tumultuous early years.

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