If your children rarely bicker, never hit, and maintain a harmonious relationship filled with flowers and rainbows, then click away immediately. Go do some online shopping for strappy sandals or peruse pop culture updates. You’ve earned it. Also, we can’t be friends.
If your children, like mine, can get downright nasty — red-faced, hair-pulling nasty — then please read on.
Though my son and daughter can be the best of buds, working on puzzles and projects together, they also can fight in a way that breaks my heart.
Which is why I recently read Faber and Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry, a book chock full of useful advice and other parents’ personal stories that have helped to calm the sibling storms that periodically blow through our home.
Here are some of the book’s basic tenants:
Acknowledge the ugly feelings. Listen and repeat back a child’s not-so-nice feelings about her sibling (My child: “I hate that he’s always copying me; Me: “You don’t like your brother doing everything you do.”). With the ugly feelings expressed, there’s room for kind feelings to grow. This, write the authors, is “a circuitous route to sibling harmony. And yet, the most direct.”
Avoid comparisons. No lines like “why can’t you be more on time like your brother” or “you should hustle more like your sister on the soccer field.” See them as separate individuals.
Don’t treat siblings equally; treat them uniquely. “By valuing and being partial to each child’s individuality, we make sure that each of our children feels like a number one child,” write Faber and Mazlish.
Give children space to step out of any negative roles they are playing. Avoid locking one of your children into the role of the bully or the victim or the weird one or the smart one. This requires you to both be present and to give them the tools they need to step out of a role.
Of course, even if you follow all the above advice, fights will still happen. The book also offers ways to intervene effectively. Hint: mostly stay out of it unless a child is being physically or verbally abused. “Children should have the freedom to resolve their own differences.” That freedom helps them learn how to assert themselves, how to compromise, and how to be more resilient. But, we do need to step in sometimes — our job as parents is to teach our children to fight fairly.
If sibling spats are ratcheting up, consider reading Sibling Without Rivalry. Also, consider reading these picture books to help tip the scales toward sibling harmony:
Author: Judy Bloom
Illustrator: Irene Trivas
Age Group: 5-10
If you want to follow Siblings Without Rivalry‘s advice to acknowledge the ugly feelings your child has about his or her sibling, then read this old Judy Blume picture book. In the book’s first half the nine-year-old sister complains about her six-year-old brother, “The Pain.” In the second half “The Pain” offers up his complaints about his sister, “The Great One.” Both children worry that their parents love their sibling more.
Filled with realistic sibling complaints and some funny illustrations, this book held my children captive and provided them with both some insight into their sibling’s perspective as well as a way to know that they’re not alone in being annoyed with their sibling.
Though seemingly negative, this “complaint book” is actually quite a balm for the sibling relationship.
Author: Max Kornell
Age Group: 4-8
Siblings will recognize themselves in Martha and Hal, a sister and brother who relentlessly try to outdo each other. When the pair travel on a new path in the woods, they drop their competition to help each other. This thoughtful book mirrors a realistic and healthy sibling relationship, where brothers and sisters sometimes bicker and compete, but also possess a deep love for each other.
Author: LeUyen Pham
Age Group: 3-8
With gentle humor, expressive illustrations, and a nod toward each child’s uniqueness, this book manages to both acknowledge the annoyances of sisterhood (“The Big Sister thinks she’s always right”) and celebrate the specialness of the relationship (“The Big Sister tells all the good stories! I’m the Little Sister. I get to listen!”).
Author: Rachel Vail
Illustrator: Yumi Heo
Age Group: 3-8
What happens to sweet Katie Honors when her baby brother knocks down the castle she built? She turns into Bombaloo, a fierce, angry, scrunched-faced big sister who pushes her brother and has a massive tantrum. When Bombaloo is done, her mother hugs her, transforming her back to Katie. Katie apologizes to her brother and the book ends with the siblings building the castle together.
This book was a godsend when my son was a baby and my own daughter would become Bombaloo when his curiosity messed with her projects. The story gave her a way to manage the frustration of having a crawling sibling.
Author: Patricia Polacco
Age Group: 4-8
Treesha yearns to do something better than her older brother, Richie, who seems to be the best at everything. Richie’s constant teasing about how great he is only exacerbates the situation. Treesha finally gets her moment to shine, leading to a twist ending that transforms her relationship with her brother. Like Me First, this book reminds readers that while you and your sibling annoy each other, you love each other more.
Author: James J. Crist, Ph.D. & Elizabeth Verdick
Illustrator: Steve Mark
Age Group: 8-13
This self-help style picture book is for older children who are open to learning concrete ways to improve their relationships with their siblings. If moms and dads are too strapped for time to read Siblings Without Rivalry, this book could serve as a useful alternative.
Engage your children in projects, games, and rituals where they work together. Doing so will fill a bucket of good will and fun memories to positively fuel this lifelong relationship. Here are some suggestions:
Cook together. My kids worked together to make cupcakes for my husband’s birthday. The cupcakes were kind of gross, but the sibling harmony was sublime.
Work together to paint a picture or some pottery as a birthday or holiday gift for a relative.
Play a cooperative board game. One our favorites is Richard Scarry’s Busytown: Eye Found It!
Set up a lemonade stand. My daughter sketched the sign, my son colored it in. We all made the lemonade. My daughter poured for the customers; my son collected the money. They counted their profits together.
Build a snowman or sand castle together.
Go on a hike together.
Go to a museum together.
Give back together. We shop for Christmas gifts for an anonymous family given to us by the Salvation Army.
Team up against Mom & Dad. Kids love working together to beat Mom & Dad at a relay race or a backyard soccer game.
Holiday rituals. Make popcorn garland, carve pumpkins, or make Valentine’s Day cards for loved ones.