Foe or Friend?

How to rein in sibling rivalry.

When I was a single young pediatrician, I had a real-life lesson in what I'd only known as textbook theory about sibling rivalry. While his mother and I talked, two-year-old Andrew shoved his one-year-old sister, Emily, to the ground every time she tried to stand up and walk. With gritty determination, she rose up to him again and again.

Now as a mother of five, I know too well Andrew and Emily's relationship typifies many. Brothers come to blows over who can sit in the front seat. Sisters make up rhyming chants to ridicule each other. Rivalry reigns.

PARENTING CLASS, SUNDAY SCHOOL, and child development texts assume sibling rivalry is the norm. Most parents expect that somehow their children will become adult friends, so they settle for toleration in the interim. Yet sibling friendship can be a mark of the Christian family.

Parents can maintain high expectations for sibling friendships—even when their kids prefer a boxing ring to a board game.

In such friendships, children begin to understand the importance of commitment to the people God has put closest to them. God calls us to "love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]" (Matthew 19:19). Your child's sibling is his first neighbor. Christian families who practice sibling friendship witness to the world how wonderful it is to claim Christ as brother and friend.

The reality is, it's possible to rein in sibling rivalry and promote family friendships regardless of your children's temperament, spacing, age, and gender. Here's how.

Cultivate friendships.

The families I know who foster sibling friendship maintain high expectations for that friendship—even when their kids seem to prefer a boxing ring to a board game.

If sibling rivalry reflects a tug-of-war for parental recognition, then sibling friendship transforms that tension into a seesaw ride. Children balance one end while you support the other, allowing you to become a coach instead of a referee. And just as a good coach plans practice times, specialized drills, game schedules, and celebrations, so you can encourage family friendships by making them a priority.

I invested lots of energy organizing fun play dates for my children and their school friends before I realized I needed to pay similar attention to bolstering my children's relationships at home. So now our children decide on an outing together, become partners on a project or gift, or share a privilege such as a late bedtime.

My friend Shannon gives her children photo albums filled with pictures of family friendship. I've learned from Shannon to record more happy moments. Another mom compliments her children's friendship publicly. She's helped me cheer for my children's relationships as much as I cheer for their soccer plays. Pediatricians tell parents to "catch your child being good." So catch your children being friends and reinforce their affection.

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