By Kris Beck, as told to Anna Mussmann
When my five girls were young, people occasionally commented that I was “lucky” to have children who played nicely together. I can’t help thinking of the Goose from Charlotte’s Web, who declares, “Luck has nothing to do with it! It was good management and hard work!” The thing is, kids are cute, but they are also sinners. They will fight as much as you let them. They will ruin their own game by squabbling over the Duplos or hitting each other with the doll chairs. If you think that sibling ugliness is inevitable (“this is just how kids are,” “their personalities just clash,” etc.) or if you wish it didn’t happen but don’t know how to prevent it, your kids are losing out on a wonderful opportunity to build lifelong friendships. They will instead build deep rifts of hostility and resentment that may last a lifetime. What a tragic loss! Someday, we parents are going to die, and our kids will be left alone. It’s pure wishful thinking on our part if we believe that even if they dislike each other now, they will magically come together then.
My girls are all diverse in interest and personality. Who knows whether, if they all happened to meet as strangers today, they would seek each other out as friends? Yet part of the point of families is to experience a far broader section of humanity than we would otherwise choose for our intimate circle. God gives us siblings who teach us how differently other people think, and, better yet, how to appreciate these differences. My own girls keep in touch and eagerly travel cross country to visit each other despite their differences. They will have each other even after their parents are gone. How did this happen? I am going to share what worked for me (that is, the management and hard labor that was sometimes mistaken for luck). A lot of this is focused on young children. The early years are an investment that will make the middle school and teen years better. If you don’t let three-year-olds push or bite, you can often prevent the teen-aged version of verbal pushing and biting.
Be There for Them (Mentally, Emotionally, and Physically)
If children have unmet emotional or physical needs, quarreling is one of the ways in which they will express this. Be proactive about setting the stage for a culture of friendship. Don’t try to do your parenting from a different room. Give them plenty of eye-contact and positive conversation. They need to know that if they come to you with a need, you will drop what you are doing and pay attention to them. If you give them verbal attention but keep your eyes on your knitting/phone/housework, they will not feel that they actually have your attention. Make sure that they don’t need to get into a fight to drag you away from your own activities.
Give them healthy boundaries and a strong authority figure. I myself don’t necessarily have a “bossy” personality (I have a lot of opinions, but I don’t like making people do stuff), but I realized early on that it was my job—my duty—to be the boss when I was home with my children. When it came to a contest of wills, I had a sacred obligation to win. This was for my kids' own happiness, because they needed to be able to trust me to be in charge. Are any of your kids particularly difficult to handle? Don’t worry! God doesn’t make mistakes. He gave them the mother they need, and He gave you the job of figuring out how to be their authority.
Give them examples of good behavior. Speak politely and kindly to them and to their father. Speak respectfully of the service-people, drivers, and congregational members in your life. If you model poor social interaction, they will imitate you (note that a lot of these things are intertwined—if you enforce prompt obedience, you will be less frustrated with them, and will find it easier not to provide a bad example of yelling, nagging, or complaining). Teach them to appreciate what they have. As they grow up, they should read books about harder places and tougher times, and should be involved in serving others. Grateful people are more likely to try to get along with others instead of demanding that others serve them.
Build Your Observational Skills
I know a mom whose oldest daughter was a “pincher.” She would walk through a room, grab a finger-full of one or another sibling’s flesh, and pinch! The little kids would cry, problems would ensue, and somehow, the mom was clueless. She seemed not to realize what was obvious to everyone else. A whole lot of sibling problems can be solved if you discipline yourself to pay attention. I know otherwise sweet and adorable children who deliberately get a sibling into trouble. It goes like this: Child One says or whispers something provocative to Child Two, knowing that he is less verbally gifted or more prone to temper. Child Two responds with a punch or yell, and Child Two is the only one punished, because it was the punch that caught Mom’s attention. This kind of thing breeds all kind of trouble. Keep an eye out. Surely you remember being a kid—if you felt that chronic injustice existed, or that your sibling “always” got away with something, weren’t you a lot more inclined to flare up at the little things he or she did?
Learn to be listening even when the kids think that you are not. Choose to sit in the room where they play. Build a habit of actively studying their dynamics and looking for the little wrinkles that may erupt into conflict. This is not to say that you must orchestrate their play. Instead, you are learning to know what is really going on, so that you will be able to intervene more effectively and therefore less often. If you respond to unacceptable interpersonal behavior as strictly as you would to unsafe romping in the street, you will see a great deal less of it (just as your children know better than to leave the house and run out into the street without permission, they must know that cruelty or meanness, as opposed to ordinary give-or-take disagreements, brings down the authority of the law).
If there seems to be a problem beyond the ordinary micro conflicts of sibling life (if someone has a pattern of being mean, or is constantly tattling), your job is to figure out what is behind this. Is one child repeatedly excluded? Is one child craving more attention from you? Is one child going through a difficult time of growth, and simply needing more sleep and maybe firmer discipline than usual?
If the younger sibling often gets bored when her sister picks up a book, and therefore causes trouble, it might be appropriate to plan an activity for the younger one. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Ask her to help you cook lunch. Pull out the bricks and let her make towers. Send her to the swing set. Alternatively, it might be necessary to sternly correct her when she first begins pestering her older sister (she may not realize that you realize she is doing this). The big kid version of this is just as important. Your teenagers should be required to show each other the same courtesy they would show an adult. They would not kick Grandma’s puzzle out of the way, or complain constantly that Auntie’s hobby made a mess in the basement. They shouldn’t do this to their siblings’ activities, either.
If the two bigger kids routinely exclude and snub the third child while playing, have a talk with them about this in private. Ask for their help in teaching the little one how to play, so that he will have more fun and be more fun for everyone. Support their need for “big kid play” on some occasions (let them do a more delicate craft during nap time, or while you keep the little one occupied) and then expect in return that they will play nicely with their brother.
Step in before anyone is angry and teach them about negotiation. Establish systems of sharing, taking turns, using one’s words, using “rock-paper-scissors,” etc. Eventually, they will be able to do this without you, but someone needs to teach it first. When parents tell young, untrained children to solve their problems themselves, the result is often that the kids don’t actually solve anything—instead, they merely engage in a contest of wills to see who is willing to hold out longer. This gives the advantage to the stubborn child who would rather be torn into pieces by wild wolves than give in. If you find yourself telling your kids to solve petty quarrels themselves, listen to them. Is the dialogue something like, “Look, if you let me have it now, I will help you sweep the kitchen after dinner?” or is it more like, “I want it.” “No, I want it.” “I want it!” “I want it!” “Waaah!” ? You don’t want anarchy in your household.
Build Their Appreciation for Each Other and Give Them Unique Roles
When my girls fought, I would tell them, “Your sister is a very special person, because you will have her forever. It is important for you to be kind and take care of each other.” Moreover, if their argument got ugly, I would say, “I will not allow you to talk to your sister that way. Your daddy doesn’t talk that way to me. I don’t talk that way to you. We don’t talk like that in this house.” You need to teach them to value their relationship. If they cannot get along and treat each other politely, they should not be allowed to play with anyone else. When I had teenagers, I actually found it helpful for us to visit many different families with different kinds of family dynamics. We would talk about it afterwards. I would ask my kids what they thought of how these families lived together or how they handled conflict. As my girls analyzed what they saw, it helped them build an appreciation for their own unique family.
It also helps to point out the kids’ strengths to each other. “Billy, why don’t you ask your brother to show you how to do that? You know he’s pretty good at it. Tommy, wouldn’t you like to help Billy with this?” As my girls were growing up, I helped make sure that they all found some special skill that was valued by the rest of the family. One child became our cheesecake expert. Another was the cookie baker. Another was really good at fixing anything mechanical. Making sure that each child had the opportunity to be truly good at something helped give them confidence in themselves and appreciation for each other. It also helped diffuse the competitiveness that can lead to sibling conflict.
Child Rearing: Hard Work, but Worth It
When your children are small, you may feel like you are constantly policing, correcting, chasing, and adjusting. Your lips may ache from the metaphorical whistle. Yet you need to do it. As we are told in the book of Proverbs, "A child left to himself brings shame to his mother." This investment does pay off. It pays off a hundredfold in the relationships of your adult kids, of course, but it also pays off in the short term. Once established, a family tone is incredibly valuable. The older kids will teach and coach the younger ones. You won’t have to prove that you mean it when you say, “I will not allow you to talk to your sister like that,” because they will already know that you won’t allow it. Of course, your family life will never be perfect. That's OK. Your goal is not to create perfect, loving, 100%-harmonious children right now. Your goal is to rear individuals who will be kind, considerate adults who enjoy each others' company and know how to be good friends to people who are different from themselves. The management and hard labor of child training is an incredible gift to your family.
Kris Beck is a pastor’s wife and a native of Finland. She home-schooled her five daughters (the eldest of whom is editor of SDMW), and is currently down to one student left at home. She bakes a mean spinach pie, is often found with knitting needles in her hands, sings in choir, and maneuvers her minivan (so says her husband) a bit like a retired race-car driver. She will feed any student who comes to her church.
Title Image: "Newcomer at School" by Emily Shanks