Friendships in our own home, to be deep and true and heart-satisfying, must be formed by the patient knitting of soul to soul and the growing of life into life, just as in other friendships
- J.R.Miller -
Its every parents desire, isn't it? The moment that pregnancy test signals a sibling is on the way, a dream is formed. Images of little ones playing in happy harmony, sharing experiences, giggling at bedtime, laughing over in-jokes and forging friendships that last a lifetime. This is the hope of mothers and fathers around the world, and yet, all too often, the reality is far from it. Bickering and selfishness can dominate, siblings flit in and out of the home, preferring time with friends to their brothers and sisters, and words are more often cruel than they are kind.
As a parent looking on, inter-sibling strife can feel heartbreaking.
At the end of the day, our children are sinful, just as their parents, and therefore the harmonious little home bubble we imagined was never going to be the reality. Siblings fight... It's an important developmental occurrence, and yet one question has hovered over much of my thought life since I became a mother for the second time...
How can we help create an environment that cultivates strong sibling bonds? Is it simply a case of nature - in which case I am powerless to help, or is there an element of nurture... the opportunity to purposefully nurture my little brother and sister gang, to encourage an environment of care and true friendship?
It is very early days for us; our little sibling brood range from (almost) 6 years to 3 months, so I am by no means an expert on this issue. For that wisdom, I look to wise Mamas who have gone before, who's children have grown up and flown the nest and love each other dearly.
And yet, I have become increasingly convinced that I can help to create an environment which helps my children to establish caring friendships with one another, and in the spirit of hoping to glean advice and wisdom from others, I thought I'd share where I'm at...
1. Pray specifics
At the end of the day, though our children have been entrusted to us to teach, and train and raise, ultimately they are in the Lords hands, and there is no formula for producing well-rounded children. It is not a case of 'do this, and your children will be best friends'. I've been convinced that, as is always the case with everything, the best course of action is to pray... We must pray proactively, and pray specifics. We need to pray for sibling conflict and rivalry, pray for the individual struggles of children, pray for present trials and future possibilities. Pray for hearts to be changed and the gospel to take root. This is the most obvious thing to do, and yet it's the one I'm so slow to learn! Why is that?! If we really want deep, loving friendships between our children, we must first commit those relationships to the Lord.
2. Give them time
For our children to establish genuine friendships, we need to give them plenty of time together. Rushing our children out to school, extra curricular activities and weekend hobbies presents them with wonderful opportunities, but leaves them with very little time in the family home, and by default very little time together. I have found that long periods of absence harms our children's relationships and long hours of nothing to do stuck together seems to do them the world of good! It seems counter-intuitive (they are bickering lots, surely separation is best?!) but somehow long, open hours forces them to find some entertainment for themselves and usually ends up in the best kinds of play. As with any relationship,when time is invested, the relationship is more likely to flourish; when siblings live like passing ships, irritation and misunderstanding are more likely to thrive.
3. Refer to each other as friends
We have always purposefully encouraged our children to refer to each other as their best friends. There is something about the statement of this fact that seems to help them to recognise when they have taken each other for granted, or hurt each other in some way. Using the language of friendship is something we want to be familiar and comfortable for them, so that they use it freely and openly with each other.
4. Make opportunities to share what they love about each other
My children have no problem recognising each other's faults. Sibling fault-finding seems to come to them instinctively... And so it seems necessary to train them to recognise each other's gifts. A couple of years ago, we spent an evening meal, sharing what we loved and appreciated about each family member. It was a really precious time, and the pictures and words were stuck on our patio door for many months. But to be honest, this kind of family conversation should be happening much more frequently than every other year. Are we encouraging our little ones to celebrate each other's successes, recognise what the others are good at and take joy in each other?
5. Enlist each other's help
Being Mama to four can feel often like I'm being batted around to constant cries from different little people; "Mama, can you open this", "Mama! Come here!", "Mama, help me!"... It can feel pretty intense and pretty relentless. One of the joys of siblings, though, is that they can help each other, and I'm increasingly convinced that actively encouraging them to be the ones to step in and help is not only good for my sanity, but also for their friendships. When an older sister can read a story, or help get a toy down, or a younger brother can go and get a needed item for them, they are learning not only to be helpful, but also to be there for each other. My hope is that by encouraging them to support each other in the small daily tasks, they will learn to be there for each other in the bigger trials of life as they grow up.
6. Promote a sense of responsibility for one another
One of the ways we have sought to actively forge positive relationships between our girls and their younger brothers is for them to take responsibility for them, and help to take care of them. As Jonas has grown, I have seen him begin to pick up some of these characteristics, and he is now fiercely protective of all his siblings (something we're currently working on managing!) Though we perhaps don't want him to go into sibling protection overdrive when someone so much as looks at Elias, we are keen for the children to look out for each other. Encouraging responsibility and a sense of belonging is one way of promoting this.
7. See conflict as an opportunity for learning
Conflict will happen... To deny this is to live outside of reality. Our girls are very close - they really are the best of friends, and yet they can absolutely fight like cat and dog! Though sometimes it feels relentless, conflict is good. It is here, in the safety of secure family relationships, that our children can learn how to resolve conflict - how to compromise - how to forgive. My children are small, so I still have an active part to play in most conflict resolution. The 'let them sort it out themselves' model only really works if children have been taught how to be empathetic, how to see things from others perspectives and have been given the tools to resolve conflict... At 5,4,2 and 3 months, I'm not sure we're there yet! Training in this area is hard slog... But I'm hoping it will be worth it!
8. Model it!
This is perhaps the most challenging of all! How are Dave and I modelling this in our behaviour and reactions? If I speak harsh words to him, or do not vocally and verbally thank him for all he does for our family - if I refuse to help him, or don't invest time in him, how can I expect our children to do any different? The old adage speaks volumes... "Actions speak louder than words"... Oh! How challenging that is!
So that's where I'm at... A few thoughts on cultivating sibling relationships... Some questions for you? How do you seek to invest in the sibling relationships of your little people? Have you noticed any cause and effect of sibling harmony or sibling strife?
For those with older children... Do you have anything to share? Things that worked? Or anything you'd do differently?
Please share your wisdom!!
And in the meantime, some resources that I found super helpful...
* This podcast on Sibling Relationships by the At Home girls
* The chapter "Brothers and Sisters" in J.R.Miller's "The Home Beautiful"
* This article by Simple Kids