Why can’t our children get along? Why such sibling rivalry? Learn how to help your children become friends for a lifetime!
She scoops him up her arms with a smile and kiss. He pulls her hair and she laughs.
They talk through the darkness about how the guy who was given grasshoppers as an ingredient on Iron Chef really got a bum deal and shouldn’t have been kicked off. Then they come up with their own grasshopper-laden recipes just in case they’re ever in the same position.
He calls his little brother from college and listens as he relays details of his latest Lego creation. Eight years age difference is no difference at all.
If I threw the word SIBLING out there, what words would pop into your head?
Does that word bring anything pleasant to mind for 99.9% of families?
Yet, what I just described to you comes directly from the pages of my children’s lives. I didn’t make those scenarios up, and if you ask, I could come up with a hundred more just like that.
You see, my kids like each other.
Shocked by that? Don’t be. It isn’t some anomaly that only happens every once in a while to very few families. It is rooted in the family dynamic, parenting practices, and how children are taught to see their individual personalities.
What causes sibling rivalry?
In my post Jealous Siblings (and other such nonsense), I share how jealousy is often inadvertently nurtured by the parents. Sibling rivalry is usually an off-shoot of this jealousy. There is something a sibling is perceived to have that another sibling, in turn, begins to covet.
This skewed perception becomes dangerous when a parent tries to make everything FAIR instead of teaching their children that everyone has talents, blessings, aptitudes, etc. that are unique to them. In fact, trying to make everything fair often ends in one or more of the siblings believing mom and dad have a “favorite child” simply because they were always trying to appease them.
Fairness doesn’t exist
My mom used to say, “The Fair isn’t until September.” While she was being silly because I, of course, was not asking her about the State Fair, she was making a point.
FAIR DOESN’T EXIST, SO STOP LOOKING FOR IT.
But, many parents, in an effort to comfort a hurting sibling, will try to find a way to make things fair. This, in turn, negates the other sibling’s accomplishments, possessions, talents, etc.
And the cycle begins.
This cycle of always trying to make things fair will follow your children into adulthood, where, depending on their personalities, they may find themselves always searching for fairness and never finding it, becoming a victim, never a victor.
Yes, sibling rivalry is that serious.
So, we must stop trying to make everything fair between siblings, and learn to celebrate the differences between our children.
Now, I’m not advocating for you to announce at the dinner table one night that Susie is good at drawing, but Sam is not and then rattle off what Sam is good at. You need a more organic approach.
Individual children. One family.
Everyone is looking to belong to something bigger than themselves, yet still be their own person, respected and loved for who they are individually. When children don’t find that within in their own family, they go elsewhere. And often in the process, they tear down their family to make themselves feel better about the loss. They unfortunately, leave broken relationships, often with siblings, in their wake.
But, what if we learned to respect and honor our unique children and hailed their individuality as a benefit to the family unit? What if we created a sense of something bigger, yet still individual, that everyone in the family belongs to?
Think of it in terms of a crew on a ship. Each individual has their “job” and yet, the ship as a whole is moving in one direction. Every member of the crew moves forward, but with differing ways of participating in that movement.
This requires us as parents to:
- Create a strong family unit.
- Learn to see and respect the strong individuals.
Not an easy task, but well worth the time and effort.
In our family, we often talk about how each child’s aptitude benefits the whole. We try to capitalize on and build up those individual blessings. Over the years, we have learned to exercise the muscles of “noticing” and “praising” along with the muscle of “building a family identity.”
So, my first question to you would be:
Does your family have a purpose, a vision, as a family unit?
Who you are as a family is a remedy for sibling rivalry
What defines you as a family? What comes to mind when you think about your family as a whole? What makes you different from the family down the street?
This doesn’t have to be profound. It can be as simple as we enjoy sports as a family. Or in the case of our family, we are hospitable and like to have people over to our house.
Now, you might be thinking about that one child who hates sports, thinks they aren’t any good at anything sports related, and complains about watching the game on television every.single.time.
But, God didn’t accidentally place this unique child in your family, and he didn’t accidentally make you this child’s parent.
What unique quality does this child bring to the table that can fit int with the family identity?
To go back to the sports family analogy:
Are they an excellent cook? Let them make snacks for the big game!
Are they good at organization? Let them plan the sports-related outings down the details!
Move in the same direction, but with unique jobs. Let them know they belong, and their job matters and makes a difference!
When a child feels respected and useful as an individual within the family unit, there is less jealousy between siblings because everyone is important and needed in different ways.
And now for my next question…
Do your children know who they are?
Individual identity as a remedy for sibling rivalry
Often in cases of sibling rivalry, the child causing the most problems is struggling with his or her own sense of value and worth. Again, it is that green-eyed monster, jealousy, rearing its ugly head.
If I looked like Johnny, I’d be more popular.
Why does Sarah have good grades and I have to struggle?
Why does Timmy get to stay up late and I have to go to bed?
Not fair, not fair, not fair!
(But the Fair isn’t until September…remember?)
Now, I’ve never been a big proponent of lessons in “self-esteem” because it can quickly turn into teaching pride, and as Christians, we are to be humble and consider others before ourselves.
Instead, our children need to know their identity in Christ.
God’s creation is vastly unique and creative. Your child is part of that creativity, so their “natural” aptitudes and giftings aren’t natural after all – they are by design! And that design has a purpose!
So, I would encourage you to start looking for your child’s gifts, call them out, USE THEM! As I mentioned in the previous section, it may look like their aptitudes don’t match up with the family’s, but God didn’t accidentally put this child in your home. They are there by design!
Rejoice in who they are!
How to nurture sibling relationships
When I was in school, there was a family who was thought of as “weird.” They were a sibling group of 5 who would hold hands, talk excitedly to each other in classes, and hug as they passed in the hallway. They always said they loved each other and they never cut each other down.
They were just so weird.
Then I grew up and had a family of my own and I found myself looking back on that sibling group and hoping my children would be that “weird” someday.
That story illustrates one of the biggest factors in creating a strong sibling relationship. The reason I thought that family was weird was because my peers didn’t typically like their siblings. They saw them as annoying and irritating, and the school system only perpetuated that belief by separating kids into age groups and never letting them interact with each other.
One of the best ways to nurture a sibling relationship is to ensure that the primary socialization of the child takes place within the family unit. Homeschoolers often have a built-in socialization system that fosters sibling relationships, BUT if you are overly concerned about socialization and spend a lot of time trying to socialize your children with children of their age, you will naturally find the sibling relationship suffers.
Certainly, it is good for children to have friends outside their sibling group, but friends should never trump the family unit. If you are intentionally trying to build family unity and strong individuals within the family, you cannot spend the bulk majority of your time outside the family.
Does this mean you never let your kids spend time with friends? Of course not! But until your child reaches their older teen years, their day should not be consumed by outside influences. They need a strong family bond! They need their siblings!
However, proximity doesn’t cause closeness between siblings all by itself. You need to be intentional with how you spend your time as a family.
Is your household a joyful place to be? Is it a haven from the world?
Do you encourage and protect the sibling relationships in your home, or do you allow behaviors that tear apart siblings…tattling, selfishness, bragging, etc?
Do you find joy in being around your children?
I have heard it said, “Children become who you think they are.” If you are annoyed or irritated by one of your children and begin to call them certain things – “oddball,” “troublemaker,” “black sheep” – they will latch onto that. And your other children will also pick up on your attitude and begin to mimic you in words and deeds. Children make really great mirrors.
Sibling rivalry isn’t all the parent’s fault
I know I’ve spent a lot of time harping on you as a parent only because that is what YOU can control. However, a failed sibling relationship is not all your fault.
But, do what you can now to avoid sibling rivalry amongst your children. Build a strong family unit. Honor the individuals who make up that family. Focus your own heart on Christ and lead your family toward Him.
Children who like each other truly are a blessing on so many levels…I pray that all of you might experience this kind of joy within your home!
Originally published in 2009 | Edited and republished in 2021