By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
When my sister and I were children, we rarely got along. Our parents seemed to accept that ours was a “typical” sibling relationship—namely, one characterized by rivalry, jealousy, name calling, and constant bickering. Both of my parents grew up in large families, each with four siblings. For them, my relationship with my sister was no different than what they had experienced themselves growing up. They considered our behavior normal, and for that reason, saw no cause to intervene. Unfortunately, the constant hurt between me and my sister took its toll. While close now, there were several years in adulthood during which we did not have a relationship. I often wondered if the childhood relationship with my sister could have been different. The pain of that relationship shaped my thinking about raising my own children and about sibling relationships in general. I believe that positive experiences with siblings teach children valuable lessons about getting along with people in the larger world.
How can parents encourage positive sibling relationships, especially given that siblings are often very different from one another in temperament and personality, and may not share common interests? One important intervention parents can make is to expect that siblings will treat each other well. While parents cannot make their children be best friends, they can insist on a certain level of civility.
“When my children were younger and would start name calling, I would say “Look, you guys don’t have to like each other, but you do have to treat each other with kindness.”
When my children were younger and would start name calling, I would say “Look, you guys don’t have to like each other, but you do have to treat each other with kindness.” When I observed disrespectful behavior, I would say “It’s not acceptable to treat your brother with disrespect.” In tandem with confronting their negative actions, I would try to “catch them being good.” When one of them was kind to the other, I would praise him and tell him that I liked how he treated his brother. When one of them passed up an easy opportunity for teasing or belittling the other, I would tell him how much I appreciated his restraint.
Sometimes destructive influences in sibling relationships are subtle. For example, it seems inherent in human nature to seek someone who is weaker, smaller, needier, and more vulnerable to pick on in order to feel more secure ourselves. Parents can do this to older children, and then older children target the younger siblings. The younger child then finds someone outside of the family to pick on. Human nature being what it is, this dynamic can occur between siblings even in families where the parents are careful not to shame children for being weak and small.
Once, when in the car, my younger son, who was in the process of learning to read, mispronounced something he saw on a billboard. My older son corrected him in a disdainful voice, and my younger son seemed very embarrassed about his mistake. When I had the chance, I pulled my older son aside and said “When you were learning to read and made mistakes, your father and I did not make fun of you, and we won’t allow you to do that to your brother.” I pointed out to him how hard it is to be the youngest and smallest one in the family in which everyone else is more knowledgeable and masterful than you, and that it was necessary to guard against actions that would lead to humiliation and shame about weakness. Later, when I learned my younger son and his friends were teasing some smaller boys at school, I talked to him in the same fashion. I said, “In our family, your father and I do not allow your brother to pick on you, and we won’t allow you to pick on younger kids.”
The approach I suggest to managing sibling relationships requires vigilance, especially at first, but pays handsome dividends. When siblings learn to treat each other well, they learn a valuable precedent for how to treat people in the world who are different from them.