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Sibling Rivalry

Here's how to call a truce to your kids' squabbling

"She always gets to have a friend over, and I never do!"

"They won't let me play with them. They leave me out!"

"It's not fair! Why are you punishing me when it was her fault?"

If these scenes sound familiar, you're not alone. Sibling rivalry's as old as the Old Testament account of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)—and families experience its frustrations every day.

Here are some tools not only to keep your kids from driving you and each other crazy, but to help them learn to become friends.

The Early Years (Ages 1-10)

Now's the time your children's character begins to develop. That's why you'll find yourself intervening a lot during this parenting era. Think of yourself as a coach who's training your kids in the fundamentals of getting along. Try these practical tips to make this stage easier:

Prepare for a new baby.

Once you know you're expecting, start giving your older child a positive vision of the kind of brother he'll be. For example, tell him, "Our new baby's so fortunate to have you for a big brother."

As the mom of five, every time I had another baby, I'd wrap a gift for each child at home and put it in the trunk of our car. When I came home from the hospital, new baby in tow, these gifts came home, too—as the new baby's gift to each sibling. With each gift was a note that said, "I'm so glad you're my big sister or brother!"

With each new child, my husband and I also prayed a special prayer with our kids, asking God to help us learn to be good parents, brothers, and sisters.

Plan for your "big kids."

Older siblings often misbehave when Mom's caring for a new baby. So try this approach: Fill a plastic box with markers, stickers, and other creative tools, and keep it in a specific place. Your "big boy" or "big girl" box can come out for play when you're nursing or in the middle of a diaper change. Another approach to offset jealousy is to plan "dates" with your older kids—without the baby. Get a babysitter and take a trip to the movies or an ice cream shop.

Promote sharing.

That argument over who gets to sit next to the window on a three-minute car ride can begin a war! One of my friends solved this dilemma by assigning one child the odd-numbered days, the other the even days. On a child's assigned day, he got first choice at everything all day long. (If you have more than two children, assign one child every third or fourth day.)

We do our kids a disservice when we satisfy all their needs immediately. Siblings are a blessing because they force us to teach our kids to wait their turn and to share.

Teach respect.

Don't ever permit verbal abuse. All kids try it—but don't put up with it. When our kids talked back to us or verbally abused each other, we washed their mouths out with yucky tasting soap. Another friend uses white vinegar. Whatever you choose, make it swift and be consistent. A child who's allowed to get away with verbal abuse will develop into a teen who talks back to parents and teachers, and a spouse who verbally abuses his wife and kids. Teach your kids to argue fairly instead of resorting to these kinds of attacks.

The Middle Years (ages 10-16)

When our daughter Allison was 12 and our son John 10, they didn't like each other very much. Once she brought home a cow's eye from a science class and told him it was a piece of candy. As he began to put it in his mouth, she burst out laughing and told him what it really was. Needless to say, John was furious! I often despaired that those two would never like each other. But they eventually went off to the same college, double-dated, and before our future son-in-law, Will, asked my husband if he could marry Allison, Will first asked her brother John.

When you reach your children's middle years, you'll need to approach it more as referee than coach:

Decide when to get involved.

A friend of mine with four boys walked into the room where they were wrestling. She knew that before long one or two of them would come crying to her.

"Okay, guys," she said, "if you insist on wrestling, I don't want to hear any complaints unless you can see blood or bones!"

As you watch your children interact, cheer their good moves, ache when they falter—and let them solve some of their own conflicts.

Hold family forums.

Sometimes siblings experience repeated discord. If this happens, gather your family together and insist that each person listen to every other family member express his views about the problem. Then discuss creative solutions: "Can you think of three creative ways to handle this problem? If you were the parent, how would you handle this dispute?"

Keep in mind the goal is to attack the problem, not other family members. Before the family forum, you and your spouse need to agree on how you're going to handle the forum and what your goals are.

Encourage togetherness.

Often siblings who clash do so because they're competing for your attention. So give these "clashers" a chance to spend time together without you around. Doing something fun together provides an opportunity for their relationship to grow. This is especially helpful when you're trying to blend siblings from two different families.

Insist on forgiveness.

We were on a family hike when Libby, who was carrying a big backpack, tripped and fell. Her brother John laughed at her and hurt her feelings. As we continued our walk, the tension between those two increased until we could all feel it.

"John," I said, "you must apologize to Libby and ask her to forgive you for making fun of her."

He didn't like doing it, but he did—and both children learned an important lesson about forgiveness that day. Saying "I'm sorry" isn't enough; it doesn't require a response. Asking forgiveness does. Teach siblings at odds with each other that it's never too late to reach out and do what's right.

Susan Alexander Yates is the author of several books, including How to Like the Ones You Love: Building Family Friendships for Life (Baker) and What Really Matters at Home: Eight Crucial Elements for Building Character in the Family (Word). Susan and her husband, John, have five children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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