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SALT LAKE CITY — I have a friend who has five boys ages 6 and under. Together, these little guys make a small tornado — bouncing off each other and anything that gets in their way. But the boys have such fierce loyalty among them. If another child threatens one of them, they'll have to answer to: "Hey, stop that! He's my brother."
Siblings are the friends we never asked for but with whom we are thrown together in what we call "family." Barring untimely deaths, these are the people who will know us the longest and have the earliest history of our lives. I marvel at what a history these five boys will have growing up together, the built-in best friends they can rely on, and all the "remember whens...?" they will share.
Columnist Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times, "My siblings have certainly seen me at my worst, and I’ve seen them at theirs. No one has bolted. It’s as if we signed some contract long ago, before we were even aware of what we were getting into, and over time gained the wisdom to see that we hadn’t been duped. We’d been graced: with a center of gravity; with an audience that never averts its gaze and doesn’t stint on applause. For each of us, a new home, a new relationship or a newborn was never quite real until the rest of us had been ushered in to the front row."
Some siblings connect better than others; some adult siblings stay more tight-knit over a lifetime than others. How can we foster lifelong friendships among our children so when we have passed on, they hold our histories close for the next generation? The following are some strategies to turn sibling foes into friends.
Support each other. As each child becomes involved in activities, it is important we tote along siblings to see their brother or sister perform. I can't count how many high school and college basketball games of my three younger brothers I've attended. Supporting each other even when it's not fun or convenient develops the expectation that they will continue doing the same when they are adults.Throw them together. I appreciate those parents who can provide each child with his or her own bedroom. It sure eliminates many potential problems of having to share space. But I tend to prefer same-gender children rooming together, breathing the same living space, turning to each other for nightly conversations and working out their problems.
My sister and I shared the same room until she graduated from high school. She didn't always appreciate her younger sister messing with her personal business (like the time she found me reading her diary). She once drew an imaginary line on the carpet down the middle of the room and declared, "This is my side. That is yours. Don't cross the line." That invisible line didn't take long to dissolve as we solved our differences and grew closer after so many shared nights together.
Don't compare. One of the damaging things we can do as parents is to compare one child with another. As I wrote in my book "Parenting With Spiritual Power," "Comparing children to their siblings or to other children often fosters discouragement in the child who can never equal the abilities and nature of others. These futile exercises exacerbate an unrealistic expectation in ourselves or our children and blow our vision out of proportion."
Raise each child as an individual, appreciating each other's differences. When I treat one child differently than another and I get the "That's not fair!" response, I remind them that "fair" does not mean equal, but what is best for each brother or sister.
To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.
–Clara Ortega, author
Create shared memories. Be sure to prioritize family time. This includes frequent family mealtimes, weekly family meetings and activity nights, but also family vacations, reunions and outdoor recreation. Decide what family traditions you'd like to establish that your children will fondly talk about as adults. What do your siblings love doing together? Camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, water sports, horseback riding, mountain biking, the arts, cooking and so many other things can be the bonding activities that purposefully unite them.Connect the dots. As your children grow up and leave home, they will likely live at a distance from each other. They become absorbed in their careers and raising their own families and may not have many points of connection. Not being in physical proximity lessens the chances of continued emotional support. We can connect the dots by establishing ongoing communication among siblings, their spouses and their children, the cousins. Be sure to share news of big events with everyone, such as the birth of babies, graduations and engagements. Connect frequently with social media such as family blogs, Facebook pages and FaceTime.
Give it time. A mother I know raised five daughters, all very competitive. These girls fought a lot growing up — over sharing clothes, sharing bedrooms, sharing makeup, you name it. This mother told me she used to throw up her hands in exasperation and say, "When will you ever be friends?"
It may have seemed impossible at the time, but as with many sisters who grow up and raise their own families, they became each other's best friends. Show your children how your own adult siblings (their aunts and uncles) have enriched your life over the years. Be patient. With time, many miracles can happen.
One of the best gifts we can give our children is their siblings. Clara Ortega described it this way: "To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time."
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker, and professor at Utah Valley University. Her website is www.nelsonjuliek.com where she writes articles on the joys, challenges, and power of parenting.