Note: This piece, written by me, was originally published on Stridepost.com, a website dedicated to helping families stay organized and achieve goals together.
“How did you do it?” my mom friend asked me.
Her first two kids were quite a few years apart, but her youngest children are currently 1 and 3 years old. “The sibling rivalry is TERRIBLE!” she exclaimed. “I need somebody to school me!”
My friend is a good mom; her bright, beautiful children are a credit to her. But it never hurts to share ideas with each other. I am glad to share mine.
My kids get along pretty well most of the time. They regularly cheer for each other during head-to-head match-ups on Wii sports. They love squeezing themselves together into one office chair to laugh uproariously at videos on YouTube. They compliment each other. My son, age 8, sometimes makes his sister’s toast (she’s 5). Also, sometimes they argue. (Because that’s what brothers and sisters do, unless you’re the Osmonds.)
As we were preparing for our daughter’s birth 5+ years ago, here are some of the conscious decisions that we made with the hope of minimizing sibling rivalry:
Before the baby was born…
- We spoke often about Baby Sister. “When we go to the splash pad next summer, Baby Sister will be with us.” I talked about her as though she was already part of our family. My goal was that my son wouldn’t have a surprised “What is this crying bundle?” moment when we brought the baby home. Instead, she would be the family member whom he was finally getting to meet.
- We tried not to blame the baby for changes that we made. For example, my son’s car seat had always been behind the driver. I knew that at some point in the next year, he would probably learn to buckle his own seat belt, whereas his sister would need help for several years to come. For the sake of convenience, I wanted the baby’s seat behind mine. So several months before my due date, we moved my son’s car seat to the passenger’s side. I would reach out from the driver’s seat and hand things to him on the diagonal. “Isn’t this nice?” I’d say. “Now that you’re a big guy, we can hand things to each other.” We installed his sister’s car seat just a few days before her arrival. By then, he was used to his new position and didn’t even notice.
- We took him to choose a gift for his sister. He looked forward to giving it to her. We also gave him a gift from the baby. The act of exchanging gifts was an opportunity for intimacy and personal connection.
- We didn’t rush the oldest child to grow up. I tried potty training him during my second trimester, but he just wasn’t ready. I never pressured him with “you’re going to be a big brother, so start acting like a big boy” tactics. It wasn’t his decision to become a big brother and it seemed unfair to saddle him with extra responsibility because of it. Instead, I changed two sets of diapers for the first six months of my daughter’s life. Then one glorious day, my son asked, “Mommy, can you potty train me?” I could and I did!
When the baby was born…
- We brought her brother to the hospital for a few minutes. I wanted his first memories of her to be pleasant, and not associated with hours of tedious waiting or being constantly “shushed” because he was in a hospital. He was interested to look at her for a couple minutes, then he got bored. So his grandpa drove him home.
- We avoided pressuring him to perform. There were no forced attempts for them to be immediate best friends. There were no manufactured “kiss her for the camera” moments. His genuine response to her was accepted and respected.
- We all went home as a family. One magazine article suggested bringing the older child to the hospital so that the family could travel from hospital to home together. (The purpose was to avoid the older child feeling like his home, his safe place, had gone topsy-turvy in his absence.) For some reason I can’t remember now, we weren’t able to take the magazine’s suggestion. Instead, we left the hospital with the baby, picked up my son from Grandma’s house, then went home. The main goal was that he be with us when we brought Baby Sister home for the first time, and he was.
After the baby was born…
- My son and I had alone time every day. While the baby took her morning nap, he and I would play Uno or Candyland. In the evenings, my husband would sometimes take him to the store or the library.
- We complimented our older child on his achievements. As I said above, we never tried to force him to grow up faster, but when he did achieve new things at his own pace, we made a big deal about it. “Hey, you’re using the potty now! What a big boy!” Or, “You buckled your seat belt all by yourself? You’re really growing up!” This made him feel that his role as the big kid was just as unique as the baby’s.
- We asked him to help with the baby in age-appropriate ways. The intention was not that he feel responsible for the baby’s safety or well-being. Rather, I wanted to create a sense that she was our baby, a member of our family, not his competition. When he’d retrieve a toy for her, I’d say, “Thank you. You’re such a good brother.” Or, “She seems to really like that. You did a great job.”
- We tried not to complain about the baby to her big brother. If she cried all night long, it would be appropriate to express my frustrations to a grown-up. However, if I did that to my son, he would possibly start to view the baby as a nuisance who’s making Mom miserable. So instead, if he asked, “Why did she cry so much?” my response would be, “She must not feel good, poor girl.”
Now that the baby is five years old…
The younger kid sometimes wants to keep up with the older. She gets frustrated with herself when she has trouble hitting a baseball as well as he does.
The older kid sometimes becomes too helpful (or domineering, depending on how you look at it) and the younger wails, “That’s not how I wanted to do it!”
Sibling rivalry is now a two-way street. Well, maybe a bit more of a path than a paved street. The kindness, helpfulness, and civility that we modeled and praised in earlier years seems to be slowly paying off. More and more often, they encourage each other, rejoice with each other, and praise one another’s accomplishments. Also, sometimes they argue. Because we’re not the Cleavers.