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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.

Ages and stages.

Parents often ask pediatricians about the ideal spacing between siblings. Just as there's no ideal family size, so is there no ideal gender mix or age separation. In God's economy, every child is an integral family member.

We know one family with six children who have their preschoolers pray for the older sibs. Our four-year-old likes to put love notes in lunchboxes to surprise her older brothers and sisters.

A friend once told me she felt guilty when she realized her youngest had learned to tie his shoes without her—the older children had taught him how. But don't friends do that for each other? I congratulated rather than consoled her.

Sometimes parents suggest the less kids have in common, the better the family dynamic. But noncompetitive coexistence isn't the goal; it's learning to invest in another person. Childhood relationships are great stepping stones on the path to understanding Christian community, and contradict the cultural claim that the self is the focal point of attention.

Rituals and traditions.

Rituals and traditions help to foster healthy sibling interdependence. One idea we've found successful is playing "I Spy," a time when each of our children shares a godly trait he noticed in another. "God-sightings" is another fun activity. Children share times they were blessed by a brother or sister. And when one of our children turns ten, he or she goes on a birthday trip with the next sibling in line.

Christmas traditions can be times for siblings to make presents or prepare part of the celebration together. Some families have children draw names and become "Secret Santas" to each other. Special events, such as recitals or graduations, might include a banner, toast, or memento made by siblings. We have Mother's Day, Father's Day, and Grandparents' Day—why not start your own Brother/Sister Day?

Resolving conflict.

When my eldest two were preschoolers, one child often gave in to the other just to avoid a problem. So I had them come up with a fair plan to work things out without me. Such childhood deliberations were made more significant when given a special air. Our children enjoyed a tea-party setting. Occasionally, they even wanted to create a symbol of their work, such as a poster displaying their agreement.

When the problem is hurt feelings, our family has what we call "the rerun," where a painful scene gets acted out. A rerun requires that they play out the scene in a way that allows them to disagree without wounding each other. Sometimes the scene gets played several times before it's a "wrap." But often our offending child quickly tires of the rehearsals and figures out a kinder approach.

REMEMBER ANDREW AND EMILY? Andrew was threatened by the extra attention his younger sister, Emily, received at the pediatrician's office. Consider the story of Robbie and Carson, brothers quite different from each other. Robbie is older and is gifted artistically and athletically. Carson has poor coordination but was a good reader by age three, at which point Robbie was just starting kindergarten. Carson created a stir whenever he read aloud in public, and Robbie became upset. Their parents wisely planned a family night that celebrated each child's gifts. They didn't downplay either boy's abilities, but instead talked about how God might use their gifts to benefit others. Robbie decided he could help Carson learn the monkey bars. Carson said he'd help Robbie with hard words. Both boys worked on writing and illustrating a book together. Years later, these boys still admire each other and enjoy a friendship rather than a rivalry.

When children are settling into an angry pattern of interaction, it's time to examine their recent opportunities for friendship. We can help our children regain their joy by planning time for them that focuses on pleasure, discovery, and interdependence. Some ideas to consider are scavenger hunts, treasure hunts, charades, a cooperatively planned "surprise" for Mom or Dad, or a mission project.

Admittedly there will be days when all these efforts seem wasted. While preparing this article, I decided to take my own advice. I planned a special family day, complete with a trip to a swimming pool. The fighting began from the moment we got in the car. Time and again I was referee, not coach. In desperation, I ordered my children to go play a pool game without interrupting me. I stayed in the shallow end with my youngest child. Ten minutes later, the lifeguard's whistle blew. I went running as my seven-year-old was fished out of the deep end. He got too tired playing his older siblings' game.

Some games don't go as planned. We have to expect that as coaches. But whenever it seems I'm on a losing streak, God reminds me to keep a sense of humor and go for a winning season. I'm reminded to pray for my children's friendship and to maintain a long-term view.

Jennie A. McLaurin, a pediatrician, freelance writer, and mother of five, lives with her family in Washington.

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

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