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Sibling Love and War

Before son No. 2 was born, husband and I spent a great deal of time planning to help his older brother welcome the new addition to the family. We talked with him about babies. We combed the library for sibling arrival books, eventually settling on and loving "Talk, Baby" by Harriet Ziefert. We bought a Big Brother present for the older one that the baby gave his brother after coming home from the hospital, complete with a cupcake and candle for big brother to blow out.

And while some jealousy existed -- I distinctly recall having to learn to breastfeed the baby with the older one balanced on my lap -- overall, the transition from family of three to family of four went smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that several friends have successfully adopted our Big Brother/Big Sister present/party. And over the years, the boys have shown that they truly love each other in ways we only hoped at the time would happen.

Still, even when you prepare your kids in all the right ways, they form their own relationships with their siblings. And some brothers and sisters simply don't like each other. One niece, for instance, couldn't stand her brother from the moment he entered her world. Now much older, she has learned to tolerate him. Only time will tell what their relationship will be like once both are grown and on their own.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents stay out of kids' arguments unless they get violent, avoid comparing siblings, and apply rules fairly. The AAP also recommends praising children when they resolve their conflicts well and rewarding them for good behavior.

How do your kids feel about each other? Are they best friends or mortal enemies? How do you manage to keep peace at home when your kids clash constantly?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 4, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Babies , Elementary Schoolers , Preschoolers , Teens , Tweens
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Soemdays are good, some are bad. Last night while I was cooking dinner there was so much bickering that I announced they were not to play together anymore and sent them to seperate rooms. After about 10 minutes I heard them all start sneaking to the playroom together and the rest of the night went smoothly.

We encourage our kids to use their words with each other and in return, to respect the words of their sisters. If someone says "Please stop singing that awful song at the top of your lungs" you don't have to listen, but it would be good to compromise. My older two can do this well now, but we are still helping the younger two by giving them the words to help express themselves.

Posted by: Momof5 | January 4, 2008 7:30 AM | Report abuse

I'm the oldest of 3. Depending how far apart in age your kids are, and interests, the relationship will change. They may be great friends when they're young, and by middle school they'll do anything to irritate one another. The one thing my mother did, even when we called each other names so often she started to think those bad words were our real names, is remind us that, someday, we would be friends again. We would count on each other. Because family counts.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I now take an annual vacation with my brother and sister, and spouses. (No one has kids yet.) And guess what - we go back to one of the places my parents took us for vacation.

My mother is thrilled to pieces, and this is one time all 3 of us will happily tell her she was right. As adults, when we all have our own lives, our own space, and our own interests, we CHOOSE to share, to call our siblings friends. There is value to time, but nothing wrong with the power of suggestion.

Posted by: takes time | January 4, 2008 8:44 AM | Report abuse

My 8yo swears that she hates her 6 yo sister, certainly doesn't love me. Love is yucky, and her sister is the worst thing that ever happened to her. However, they frequently play together for hours and clearly are able to get along. They share some interests, but have clearly distinct personalities. As the younger one develops interests of her own, she is less inclined to follow along with everything the older one does, which both helps their relationship and also at times provides an additional thing to argue about (not that they need much of a reason to argue).

They both like to read and having quiet times reading, either me reading to them or each reading separately to self, is helpful. We still have a daily rest time (when not in school), which is reading time, and they sometimes ask to rest together (and occasionally I agree). We also play games together, usually with me, but they are beginning to play games without me. Santa brings games and activities for them to share rather than separate gifts.

I did not and really still don't get along with my sister. We love each other and would help each other out as needed, but we bring out the worst in each other, and, as my mother says, have the most opposite personalities possible in two siblings. My goal is for my children to get along with each other in adulthood like other families we know.

Posted by: single mother by choice | January 4, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

I was the middle kid until baby brother arrived, making us 4. I was about 8 when he showed up and we thought the sun rose and set on him. It was like having a new puppy. We all got along really well, considering we were raised by a repressed control freak mother and a father who was always at work. After all, there were 4 of us and only 2 of them. As we matured we became really close, considering an occasional sibling spat, the snippy teen years, and having to wear the older's handed down clothes while growing up.

Maybe if you spread them out age-wise there won't be the sibling rivalry. Older kids are more tolerant of babies; if you have them bam bam bam only 1 or 2 years apart, they have territorial fights for attention.

Posted by: TGIF | January 4, 2008 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Traveling does wonders for our kids' relationship. They get on fine at home, but they really play together when there aren't other distractions.

Posted by: mom of two | January 4, 2008 10:17 AM | Report abuse

My 2 sons (5 and 10) will choose their weapons, styrafoam sword or flyswatter, shields, go outside on the trampoline and whack each other for hours on end.

"Whack, swat, whok. Ouch! Thwack, bop, Gotcha, Haha, bop, bop whack..."

This activity horrified the neighbors, but they are raising daughters, so that's to be expected.

After one of the competitions, I heard my youngest son wailing and crying miserably, so I went over to the trampoline to see if he was OK. The problem? His older brother quit to go inside and finish his homework. Poor baby!

Posted by: DandyLion | January 4, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse

When my younger sister was born my parents took a similar approach. I got a big sister present from both my mom and my dad (I still have both gifts). I loved being a big sister and we got along pretty well as children. But during our teens things started to fall apart and today we have very little in common. I still love her, but we've lost all that closeness from when we were children.
It sounds like you are off to a great start with your kids, but remember that you have to continue to guide them as they get older.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 4, 2008 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I'm the oldest of two sisters and we have very different personalities and have never really formed a bond that has grown into our adulthoods.

As kids we loved playing together and shared friends, but once we hit our teens it started to go downhill and has been spiralling for the past ten years...

In hindsight, I would say it's because we undercut each other on a regular basis. (So it's a good thing we live on opposite sides of the country). This is a pattern that started when we were children and fostered, in a small way, by my parent's love of competition and encouragement to excel.

While I know my parents would have stopped this behavior if there was ever an inkling it would grow into the monster it has become, I still think it played its role. On the other hand, my sister and I have done everything to perpetuate it too...

With my kids I will do what I can to demonstrate that competing with the "world" is one thing, but families should never, ever compete with themselves.

Idealistic perhaps? Sure, but you have to start somewhere and I'd rather go overboard on the Kumbaya-stuff at home in hopes that they take some of it into adulthood.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 4, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

I have 3 kids -- the oldest is just 4. I generally ignore squabbling unless it sounds like blood may be shed.

They all get along suprisingly well, because the bigger two know the rules on sharing, hitting, name calling . . . We didn't do the big brother, big sister gift -- although we did make a big deal about how lucky the new babies were to have such a great older sibling(s). We did make a special shopping trip to let the older child(ren) pick out a special toy for the new baby and deliver it to the hospital to be the baby's very first and most special toy and the older two take great pride in any accomplishment by the younger sibling(s) because they believe they have taught it to them. We're also big on the concept of teamwork within the family and give lavish praise for any kid that helps a sibling or voluntarily shares. As a result I have actually seen the older two voluntarily help their siblings even when they weren't asked and didn't know I could see them. Having them so close together (3 in 3.5 years) we seem to have avoided some of the jealousy issues because the kids were too young when the siblings arrived for them to really realize what the impact of the baby would be on them.

As the middle child of 3 who is now close with both siblings, I think the key is in the parents forcing the kids to spend time together as they grow up even when they're in the stages where they fight constantly -- we had a lot of required family events, dinners, vacations, group chores and no one was allowed to bring a friend along so we had to make due with each others company. It was also a requirement in our house that we look after one another and if one of us screwed up we all seemed to end up in trouble -- it seemed horribly unfair at the time, but certainly reinforced the we're all in this together idea and helped the kids bond together against the tyranny of the parents. I clearly remember being grounded for things everyone acknowledged my younger brother did, but I was in trouble because I was there and didn't stop him from doing something stupid or dangerous.

Posted by: Momof3 | January 4, 2008 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Hey Army Brat,

I'm not registered on on balance so I'm posting here in the hope that you will see this. I have a daughter who actually played HCYP for 3-4 years, stopping when she reached middle school. She did have a female assistant coach who was wonderful the first year. The second year, she had the same female assistant coach, but lost the male coach (who was wonderful) and gained a new male coach and male assistant coach due to age changes and girls moving to different levels.

The new male coaches had coached together the previous year and were friends to boot. Basically, they excluded the female coach. They guided her toward score-keeping and record keeping and snack scheduling and let her "help" with practice a little, but didn't make room for her to be involved much during the game - some third base coaching at ages where the girls rarely made it to third base.

I can't really say if it was because the guys were men, buddies, type-A personalities, or all of the above, but they definitely did not make her feel part of the coaching team.

Personally, I played softball myself and loved it, but when I played it was slow-pitch, not fast-pitch which has different rules as well as pitching styles. I didn't feel like I knew enough to coach, and I had other children so I couldn't make a firm committment to the team. I did however, volunteer to help out whenever I was able to attend practice and/or games.

Posted by: to Army Brat | January 4, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

3 kids in 3.5 years? What are you, nuts? Put a cork in it.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 4, 2008 2:18 PM | Report abuse

My husband, daughter, and I are all only children. So, while none of us have siblings, we snip amongst ourselves (over things she has any say on) because we're all used to getting our own way.

Posted by: 21117 | January 4, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

I have been thinking about this a lot, since we are expecting #2 (when DD will be just past 3).

The worst sibling relationships I've ever seen seem to occur in families where there is an obvious favorite child. I had a couple of friends in this situation when I was as kid- you'd spend 5 minutes in the house and you'd instantly know who the favorite/black sheep were, and whenever this dynamic existed the kids hated each other. I wonder if the parents knew what they were doing.

Posted by: reston, va | January 4, 2008 2:35 PM | Report abuse

The biggest problem my nephews have is that they STILL insist on having everything exactly like the other. This is mostly frustrating after you've asked them each what they want, gotten it for them, and then as soon as they see what the other has, they change their mind. I'm sure this will become less of an issue as they grow.

My sister and I never got along well growing up- although the "sister day present" is a generations old tradition in our family. We are just extremely different in many ways, and were forced to share close quarters with eachother for a very long time- and she always THOUGHT I was the favored darling.

I'd say mostly just teach them to respect their siblings as other family members would and don't try to push anything else.

Posted by: Liz D | January 4, 2008 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Mom of 3--glad to hear you say that because I always thought my younger sister and I didn't get along as children because of our 3.5 year difference. Our parents could definitely have done more to help but by then I also KNEW I was the queen and didn't like her usurping my kingdom. We get along now after many years of working at it, but I think I'd rather have my kids close together so they never have enough time alone to realize they're supposed to get everything their way all the time!

Posted by: teaspoon2007 | January 4, 2008 3:41 PM | Report abuse

My boys are almost exactly five years apart - not planned, just the luck of infertility. They're great buddies most of the time. Occasionally the younger one gets upset that his big brother isn't playing with him as much as he'd like, and sometimes there's some competition for a preferred electronic device, but mostly they work things out.

My siblings and I are another case entirely. I'm oldest at 48 and youngest is 44. Middle-sister is 18 months younger than me, and we were great friends until she hit adolescence. Since then she seems to hate my guts and go out of her way to provoke me, and boy can she bring out my worst!

Youngest-sister is just 14 months younger than middle-sister, and she's a total sweetie. Everyone in the family likes her, and she likes everyone. She and I became very close during our teens, and have always stayed close, even attending each other's childbirths.

Brother, the baby of the family, came along 20 months after youngest-sister, and he's always been the best of the bunch. A total gentleman, as if he had any choice with three older sisters to pounce on him at the least sign of misbehavior. He's also very intelligent, although he thought he was dumb most of his childhood because his older sibs were always ahead of him, and girls mature faster than boys. He and I have never been really-really close, but have always been mutually affectionate, and have grown a bit closer since his oldest boy is just three weeks younger than my younger one, and the cousins are totally into each other. Brother is better at tolerating middle-sister, but doesn't enjoy her much. She tended to bully the younger two, and it's all to youngest-sister's credit that anyone in the family can still stand middle-sister.

I guess, at least in my birth-family, that it's not under parents control. Our parents never played any favorites, and we three girls all thought we were each daddy's favorite - but shouldn't let our less favored sisters know - until we were in our 20's. Brother was special, because he was the only boy, but he got treated exactly the same way as the girls. We've turned out to be close, or not-so-close because of our various personalities.

Posted by: Sue | January 4, 2008 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I have two boys ages 10 & 8 and a little girl that will be 6 in a few days. They all get along really well and watch out for one another. Sometimes the boys would prefer not to have their sister in their room while they are playing and leave her out, but I think that's to be expected and I just tell her to leave them be for a while and go play in her own room. I find that our middle child plays well with either his brother or his sister. Our oldest doesn't really play with his sister, but they do get along and he will help her with things when she needs something.

I love that they all get along and hope that it continues. My older brother and I never got along really well growing up, basically we just tolerated one another and that is how it is today even in adulthood. I love him and would do anything for him and vice versa, but truth be told neither one of us really likes the other.

Posted by: Jenny | January 5, 2008 10:37 PM | Report abuse

My daughter wrote her college admission essay about her relationship with her brother (14 months younger)--about how he was always there for her. But they fought every step of the way on the way there. I recommend adding one more rule: no tattling! If it's not a health or safety issue, then it's tattling. ("She stole a cookie!" is tattling; "he's climbing that tree you said is dangerous" is not.)

I distinctly remember having a "no touching each other in the car" rule for several years.

Posted by: DMD77 | January 7, 2008 8:47 AM | Report abuse

"use their words". God, how I hate that phrase. How about just say "talk to each other" or something similar?

Posted by: Bryan | January 7, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Interesting! My sister is 8.5 years younger than I am. We get along fine but we are not close with each other. We aren't friends. In my family's case, I think it stems from the overall family dysfunction starting with our parents' marriage.

Posted by: Little Red | January 7, 2008 1:27 PM | Report abuse

My two are 19 months apart: boy 17, girl 19. They have always gotten along very well. Not to say there were never fights -- there were -- but on the whole they are very close. Now that she is in college and away from home a lot, we really see the closeness when she comes home from school. When we travel, they are more like close friends than sibs, and I'm pretty sure either of them would die for the other, though they would never admit it.

I have a younger sister (almost 6 years younger), and we aren't close at all. Haven't been for at least 20 years. Oh well. It reinforces a conclusion that I reached when I was a teenager, or maybe even preteen: just because you're related to someone doesn't automatically mean you'll love or get along well with that person.

Posted by: DadOf2 | January 9, 2008 10:30 AM | Report abuse

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