Fostering Close Sibling Relationships

My three kids - currently ages 6, 2, and 1 - are very close.  They often play, learn, read, eat, bathe, and snuggle together.  The girls share a bedroom, as will the boys (including soon-to-be-born baby boy).  I have homeschooling to thank for some of that, as they get a LOT of time together. 

In addition, I think that each child relishes and celebrates her/his role in the family.  For example, my oldest child loves to be the big sister.  She takes her responsibilities seriously and she will often insist on helping her younger siblings.  It's part of her very identity. That feeling has been passed down to the middle sister, who enjoys helping her younger brother. 

However, that does *not* mean that there isn't conflict, of course.  I can't think of any living situation in any household that completely lacks conflict, much less where young children are concerned.  After all, the siblings must share the attention of their parents and all of the resources of the home; that is hard to do, even for grownups.  In particular, the two little ones of mine are so close in age that they have to compete more for the same toys.

Sometimes, a bit of intervention is necessary.  I can think of at least three major ways in which parents can help siblings can nurture and foster their closeness in a family situation, no matter what the age difference.

1. Have the siblings each contribute to the household responsibilities.  I always say that if a child is old enough to walk, a child can help do chores!  Children should be given special, age-appropriate jobs that show that their role is important. 

So at our house, my 1-year-old helps pick up his toys, or I might ask him to throw something in the garbage can.  In addition, my 2-year-old also puts her dirty dishes in the sink, puts her dirty clothes in the laundry, and might help me wipe off a surface (and so forth).  My 6-year-old does all of the above, plus she might help me vacuum, sweep, dust, put clean laundry away, organize items, and more.  A formal chore chart will probably be put to use someday, but so far, we've handled it casually.

Not only is this helpful to promote the trait of responsibility, this has the added benefit of assuring older children that their younger siblings aren't getting off the hook just because they are younger!  (Equality is everything to a kid.)

2. Have the siblings help each other.  Please note that this is not to be confused with "have the older children parent the younger children" or any situation where any child is burdened with undue responsibility.  While I do expect the older children to help the younger children to an extent, I do not think that it's appropriate to have the older children help to the point of unfairness.  After all, our kids can't help their birth order... we chose to be parents, but they did not choose to be siblings.

That said, I think it's a wonderful thing when siblings choose to help, teach, and encourage one another.  My oldest daughter regularly reads to her younger siblings: an important job that they all enjoy.  She has also taken it upon herself to feed, bathe, dress, and otherwise "take care" of them.  She might also take her sister to the potty or get asked to play with her brother while I get something urgent done.  My oldest takes great pride in these jobs.  I know that if she ever resisted helping, that would be a red flag that she was doing too much or felt that she wasn't getting her own needs met. 

Encouragement is something that siblings of any age can give to one another.  For example, if an older sibling accomplishes something big, have the younger child(ren) celebrate this by cheering for the older sibling.  Model this encouragement and mutual respect, and it will come back tenfold.

3. Play games and do activities that will promote equal roles.  Google "cooperative" or "non-competitive" games to see some of the games that have been done that emphasize the importance of every role, rather than having the most "able" person win.  Given the different ages and talents of siblings, you can see how competition - even casual, inadvertent competition - can pull them apart.

One simple game has variations that can work with siblings from tots to teens.  It involves taking turns to finish a story.  Older children can do this by starting a made-up story and then passing it along to the other siblings (and parents, should they participate), back and forth. The "rules" are that the kids can't interrupt each other or make fun of the other's contribution, and that they need to take turns at a reasonable pace.  Otherwise, the story can take any path it wants!

I recently did this with my two girls using a felt board with story characters, but it could also be done as a chalk picture or a painting (like cooperative art).  They had to take turns, and they couldn't move what was already placed there.  In the end, the game morphed to where my 2-year-old was choosing the felt pieces, and my 6-year-old was explaining their context in the story.  Still, the end result was achieved: they both felt that they contributed to a creative story in their own ways.

You could also have games where the children build a structure together out of blocks, or rhyme each other's words, or make up an obstacle course together, and so forth.  You can also split chore duties - one could wash the dishes, while the other dries.  The possibilities are endless.

As I tell my kids, their siblings are their best friends for life.  They will be the ones to help them navigate growing up and growing older; they will be there for each other when mom and dad are gone.  They have a deep need to trust, love, and help one another.  That is non-negotiable.