Siblings: Best Friends, Mortal Enemies, or Both?
My daughters and I about 30 years ago
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens’ famous first line perfectly describes the atmosphere in my home when my children were young. The best part of being a mother was watching the relationship between my daughters. The worst part of being a mother was watching the relationship between my daughters. It seemed like we cycled through the best friend and mortal enemy phases about one hundred times a day. It was more like a dozen times a day, but some days it felt like a hundred.
My daughters were only fifteen months apart in age (yes, it was planned), which might explain the intense bond they shared. By the time they were one and two years old, they played together magnificently. Until they didn’t. One minute they would be playing together wonderfully, and then suddenly, a shriek resembling a howler monkey would rudely shatter the family harmony. It was usually an injustice of a stolen toy or a turn taken out of order – a life-altering event in the world of toddlers. As they grew up, their relationship became a little less intense – most of the time.
Last weekend was Siblings Day, according to Facebook, and seeing everyone’s posts made me think about the vital role our siblings play throughout our lives. Sisters and brothers can be close lifelong friends, but in some cases, the sibling connection can be fraught with jealousy and conflict. Is there any way to altogether avoid sibling rivalry? Is there a perfect age gap or maybe a parenting hack that might eliminate the age-old struggle between siblings originating with biblical brothers Cain and Abel? It seems that around three years appears to be the ideal spacing between kids, but there are many variables, including children’s personalities and family dynamics, and plain dumb luck. It seems more random and not so scientific.
I was expecting my three-year-old grandson to feel some jealousy last fall when his little sister was born. After all, Callister had been the first child and the first grandchild with seven adoring grandparents at his beck and call. We were the planets, and Callister was the sun we all revolved around. How would he take sharing that pure devotion?
When his parents started talking to him in preparation for the baby’s arrival, his response was generally negative. He said he didn’t like babies. He adamantly insisted he wasn’t going to have anything to do with the baby, and he thought her name should be Dracula. The future for sibling harmony looked dismal.
We did all the things the experts advise in preparation. He stayed with us for the two days his parents were at the hospital, and during that time, I took him shopping so he could choose a gift to give his new sister. I had secretly bought a present for the new baby to give her older brother. That was a big hit. Now it’s been six months, and we’re all pleasantly surprised at how well Callister has responded to Sylvia. The baby he had suggested be named Dracula has become (in his words) “the cutest baby in the world” and “my snuggle baby.” A few days ago, he smelled her bald head and, with a big smile, proclaimed she smells like strawberries and peaches. He has asked his mom to have five more babies, just like Sylvia. The sibling relationship is going amazingly well so far.
Callister says his sister is so sweet that her head smells like strawberries and peaches. Let’s remind him of this in a few years!
Who knows what will happen when Sylvia starts walking and wrecking his beloved Lego towers or wanting to play with his dinosaurs? How will he feel when she is no longer a baby and becomes a toddler who wants to tag along on grandparent sleepovers and field trips? I hope he will continue to adore her, and she will reciprocate the feeling, but only time will tell.
I am not an expert on sibling relationships. My only qualifications are being a sibling and being the mother and grandmother of siblings. I’m not sure anyone is, even if they have a Ph.D. after their name. The only surefire way to avoid sibling rivalry is to have an only child, but some suggestions may help.
1. Prepare the older child for the new baby by talking about the impending arrival.
Don’t make any significant changes right before the baby arrives, such as moving the older child into a new room. My pediatrician advised that I allow my 15-month-old daughter to have an occasional bottle still since she would see her new sister with bottles. At fifteen months, my older daughter seemed accepting of the new baby. She didn’t show signs of jealousy until the crying baby started walking, signifying her metamorphosis into an actual child.
2. Make sure each child has some individual attention.
That can be tough, and it may only be 15 minutes here and there if you have lots of kids and not a strong support system. I unexpectedly ended up being a single parent when my children were young, so there was little opportunity for one-on-one time. Tuck-in time became a ritual carved in stone. Each child got 15 minutes alone with me for stories, songs, talks, and prayers every evening. They knew that no matter what chaos had ensued during the day, they had my undivided attention for tuck-in time. In my grandchildren’s case, lots of grandparents time with each child during the week. Not to flatter ourselves too much, but grandparents can be a valuable resource.
3. Give positive feedback!
Kids hunger to hear good things about themselves, so make sure they hear specific praise about what they are doing. Also, point out how much the baby likes their big brother or sister. That makes the older child feel loved and important. Last week, I gave Callister a box of outlet plugs and asked him to cover all the outlets at my house in preparation for his sister’s crawling. He took that job very seriously and was so proud of himself for protecting his sister.
4. Be aware there may be negative feelings towards the new sibling.
Be open to acknowledging it’s a difficult adjustment and listening to your older child express their feelings. They may just need to be heard and reassured they are special and loved.
5. Don’t leave a toddler alone with the baby.
Whether it’s an accident or on purpose, it’s too easy for a toddler to hurt an infant. In one study, it was estimated that 46% of children had been victims of sibling aggression. My oldest child was the sweetest, easiest child. We had no suspicions she was hurting her little sister until we replayed a home video of her standing behind her sister while their grandfather was reading them a book. Every few minutes, my two-year-old daughter was sneakily pinching her little sister. Don’t worry, the little sister ended up three inches taller than the big sister and got her revenge 15 years later.
6. Don’t compare children.
“Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister?” should be a banned sentence! They are separate humans with individual abilities, strengths, and interests. It can be so tempting to compare, but the damage from those comparisons can last a lifetime.
Dealing with sibling rivalry can be emotionally exhausting, but know that in most cases, it’s relatively normal. As they get older and learn to negotiate some of their sibling relationship on their own, think of it as preparation for the real world. The bonds formed with the siblings will help them in their friendships and significant relationships throughout their lives. What did you do that helped with your children’s feelings of sibling jealousy? What advice would you give parents to prepare their child for a new sister or brother?