How to Help Young Siblings Grow Up to Become Lifelong Friends
Almost half of my ten children are now teenagers. Fewer and fewer of our concerns are about the present, and more and more are about the future. We want our kids to stay close to the Church; we want them to be physically and mentally healthy; we want them to find their true vocations; and we want them to have nine good friends -- that is, each other.
What can we do, while our kids are young, to make this happen?
Well, there is no such thing as a foolproof way to make your children do or be anything. Kids have free will, and they will exercise it. Kids who are raised in the exact same conditions have a variety of temperaments, personalities, and mental fitness, and they will act on them. Horrible things happen. Incredible things happen. Other people exert their influence. People die. Events that bond one group of siblings will fracture and alienate another. There are simply too many variables in life for anyone with a conscience to claim, "Just do such-and-such, and your kids will turn out thus-and-so!" Beware such dangerous nonsense.
However, according to an extremely unscientific poll I conducted, parents can do some things -- and avoid some things -- to help influence their children so they will be more likely to remain friends with their siblings when they are adults. No guarantees! Here's what I learned:
Never play children against each other. Even if you think it will motivate Jimmy to do better or shame Jessica into shaping up, don't say, "Why can't you be more like your sibling?" or "He manages to do this; why can't you?" This kind of manipulation is disrespectful to both parties, because it uses them, rather than approaching them as individuals. If you wish one kid would learn something from another, then do whatever you can to encourage them to be friends, rather than rivals.
Don't complain about, criticize, or mock a kid who isn't in the room. (Fond teasing is okay!) Keep it to yourself, or point out the unappreciated virtues of the kid who isn't there, and encourage patience and forbearance.
Don't openly favor one child over the others. It's amazing how many parents think there's a good reason to do this, or don't realize it's happening. If someone (a child, a spouse, or someone else) tells you that you have a clear favorite -- a kid who gets more goodies or escapes more conseuqences -- slam on the brakes and make a plan to recalibrate. (The matter gets trickier when one child has unavoidable special needs, and really does need more care than the others. It's a good idea to talk openly to your children about the situation, and tell them clearly that you love them all and are doing your best to be fair.)
Avoid labelling your kids, either according to their strengths (The Artist! The Athlete! The Genius!) or their flaws (The Sneak. The Whiner. The Martyr) or their current popularity with parents (The helpful one. The troublemaker.). When some oversimplified trait becomes part of family mythology early on, it's very hard to shake the expectations and resentments that build up around it. These labels may no longer even be accurate, and they are definitely only one part of who a person is; so don't help your kids reduce each other to caricatures.
Model loving, or at least civil behavior with your own family members. Let them see you treating your family relationships as valuable and worth salvaging, even if there are disagreements and resentments. Avoid criticizing or complaining about trivial problems with your siblings in front of your children. (Of course, there are some situations where it's healthy and sane to cut ties with an abusive or destructive sibling. Depending on the age and maturity of your kids, it may or may not be appropriate to tell them why we never see Uncle Jerkface McFelon.)
Give them plenty of opportunities to spend time together. Nothing binds adults together like sharing happy, funny, or pleasant childhood memories. You don't have to arrange elaborate, high-stakes, fantasy vacations. Things like long-running family jokes, songs that everyone knows, the occasional family card game, read-aloud books, or annual games of wiffle ball are often enough to anchor a lifelong friendship among siblings. If possible, when your kids are young, buy toys and arrange the yard with group play in mind. Less pleasant projects can have the same effect. If there's a big job -- taking care of a new dog, cleaning the house for a party, pitching in when a parent is sick -- make sure everyone does their share.
But don't force artificial togetherness. Some people just don't get along well, and there is more peace if they're allowed to retreat to their corners. This is okay, too, as long as no one's being vicious. But do keep offering the chance. Don't assume that a kid who usually wants to be alone will always want to be alone. He may change his mind and be grateful for a chance to gracefully join in.
Actively encourage them to care for each other: "Please get your sister a drink of water" or "Please help your brother tie his shoes"; "You do such funny voices; can you read the little ones a story while I do the dishes?" or "She's really upset about that thing at school, and I can't get through to her; can you talk to her and cheer her up?" or "He looks up to you a lot. Can you remind him that you struggled at his age, too?" Involve siblings in planning birthday parties, and consult them about Christmas presents. Make them important to each other.
Remind them to defend each other when there's trouble outside the home. They should know that they have allies, even if the rest of the world is against them or shunning them.
Allow them to gang up against you, the parents. Let them get away with teasing you; let them make messes and noise if they're getting along for once; leave the room even if you know they're going to start grousing about you to each other. You're going to be gone long before they are, God willing, so prioritize loyalty to each other over loyalty to you, at least in more minor issues.
Always listen seriously to your child if he has a problem with his sibling. You don't have to intervene for every last squabble. They need to learn how to live with people who annoy them; but they should know that you will listen carefully and won't be dismissive. If something bad is happening -- merciless teasing, stealing, bullying, or sexual abuse -- kids shouldn't assume, "Oh, but mom always thinks Stevie can do no wrong."
Pray together as a family, and encourage prayers for each other, like, "Please help Alex's ankle heal up quickly" or "Thank you, Lord, that Stephanie is home for Thanksgiving."
Talk openly about the value of having siblings. Tell them frankly that they will need each other when they grow up, and that it behooves them to treat each other well.
Don't despair if they fight a lot as kids. These things are not written in stone. Just keep correcting them when they're nasty to each other, and keep pointing out each other's strong points. They may forge a new, strong friendship once they're not living together.
Again: there is no magic formula. Sometimes, parents to everything right, and their kids just don't like each other. Sometimes parents do everything wrong, and the kids end up as best friends. Above all, pray for your children by name every day.