I’ve heard it said that the best gift you can give to your child is a sibling. After all, relationships between siblings are often the longest relationships in life, remaining long after the loss of parents and friends. Plus, the best sibling groups will not only be close during childhood, but they will also rely on each other as they enter adult life, move away from home, and start their own families.
How do parents set children up for this close-knit future? Fostering good relationships between children starts with family dynamics, and parents must incorporate four critical elements to help their children build some of the most important relationships of their lives.
Lead by Example
As Edmund Burke once said, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” While Burke wasn’t speaking about parenting, his words do point to something important for parents: Children copy what they see their parents doing, so parents need to set the model for how they desire their children to interact with each other.
First and foremost, then, parents must model loving behavior in their marriages. Similarly, parents need to carefully evaluate relationships with extended family, as well as friends and community. While these relationships are not always chosen, parents can maintain warm, charitable attitudes toward even the most difficult people. This will provide the social toolbox children use to build their own relationships.
Parents must also be engaged with their children as a group. This means sitting with the toddler and baby to play trains, challenging as it may be. (Ask me how I know!) Parents should read the same book aloud to all three kids at once. Parents should volunteer as a group—adults and children together—at church or school. If we want kids to be there for each other, parents first need to be there with them!
Cross Age Barriers
Our modern world tends to segregate the family into individuals rather than respecting the family unit as a whole. One way this is done is by splitting up children based on age.
Granted, children in the same stage of neurological development are easier to manage than a group of kids in various stages of growth. However, splitting up siblings takes away the chance for them to grow and learn from each other.
We can help children cross age barriers by giving them intentionally communal activities. Ten-year-olds can read board books to toddlers. Teenagers can help with their little siblings’ homework questions. Five siblings can play baseball together.
When kids live life side-by-side and work together, they’ll learn to adjust for each other’s abilities, ages, and limitations. They’ll get to see different stages of life, from newborn babies to budding drivers, and they’ll get to walk alongside each other through exciting milestones.
Choose Education Carefully
I’ve written before on the importance of parents choosing education formats intentionally. Because of the days, months, and years spent in formal learning, school holds a majority vote in determining how children will view each other. Are parents using this to support children not only individually but as a unit? Are children separated by age or in other groups, or do they interact with each other across ages? Are they encouraged to push away from their siblings in their classes, or are siblings given the opportunity to work together and teach each other?
Homeschooling is a fantastic answer for parents looking to prioritize sibling relationships. But there are other options, too, including parochial schools, online schools, and educational co-ops. Options like these should encourage parents to challenge the status quo of public school.
Choose Extracurriculars Children Can Do Together
Every child will naturally have individual interests and hobbies, but parents can and should implement extracurricular activities that involve the whole family.
For example, my mother is very musical, and most of her children inherited this interest. So in addition to signing us up for individual music lessons, my mother encouraged us to form our own musical group. Together, we learned to sing, read music, Irish dance, and play various instruments. While each child pursued different niches, our performances as a group taught us to work toward a common goal.
Here are some other ideas to foster this familial extracurricular mindset:
- Attend events as a family. Parents might not have children whose interests easily align, but most children share the desire to see new sights and explore new places. Parks, zoos, libraries, museums, and other destinations can be a great opportunity for a sibling set to bond.
- Learn new skills together. One study suggests that more shared hobbies between siblings correlates with a better relationship between those siblings. Pick a skill, such as cooking, badminton, checkers, or dancing. In activities like these, children can watch parents make mistakes and learn along the way. They will also get to do the same, side by side with their brothers or sisters.
- Teach each other about individual interests. Kids love telling their parents and siblings about hobbies and interests that inspire them. To encourage and cultivate children’s passions, parents can set up a “kid classroom” where different siblings take the lead and play teacher.
- Do read-alouds. My mother did nightly read-alouds to my set of siblings. As some of us entered high school and others were but 5 years old, it got a little challenging to find books that would interest all of us. Still, it was a challenge worth pursuing. The dedicated time spent sharing our favorite stories, and discovering new ones, taught us that the best activities are those shared with your nearest and dearest.
Ultimately, parents must remember that they likely won’t be around for their children’s entire lives, but children’s siblings probably will be. If parents can teach their children how to build a solid family network together, they will offer a legacy not only to their children but one that can be passed through the generations.
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