The Gift of Siblings

By: Gregory Popcak


So here’s one for all the moms and dads of many who are a little worn out from all the negative comments on the playground and at the water cooler.   It turns out the Church is right, the best gift you can give to your children is a sibling. In fact, maybe several.  A recent study conducted by sociologists at The Ohio State University shows that an individual child’s risk of divorcing as an adult decreases by about 2% per sibling.   The researchers found a steady increase in marital stability for children from large families up to at least 7 children.   The limits of the study prevented researchers from making assertions beyond this point.  A previous study by the same authors in 2004 found that kindergarten teachers rated children from larger families as better socialized than only children (although this tended to wear off by adolescence when only children catch up socially with their peers from larger families).  Research seems to support the idea that children from larger families have a potential advantage when it comes to both present socialization and future relationships.   That shouldn’t be a huge surprise.   When you have a group of people around you all the time it increases the opportunities to learn important lessons about sharing, taking turns, cooperating, putting others first, and, simultaneously, advocating for your own needs.

That said, these skills don’t happen automatically.   I am aware of some children from larger families who struggle mightily in their adult relationships.   The difference is that adult children from larger families who have better relationship skills tended to come from families who were more intentional about teaching their children those skills, who made an effort to attach to their children as individuals, to demonstrate ample affection, and provide instruction and supervision on how to share, how to wait, and when to speak up.   By contrast, adult children from larger families who tend to assume that kids will just pick up relationship skills because they are in a larger family tend not to do as well.   Children do not learn socialization from other children.   They learn socialization by being given the opportunity to interact with other children under the active and intentional supervision of caring adults.  Whatever your family size, consider the following suggestions for helping your children get the most out of their interactions with each other.

1. Get One-on-One Time with Your Children.

All the research on sibling rivalry suggests that the more viciously siblings fight, the more the perception exists among the children that there just isn’t enough mom and dad to go around.   There is a joke among college professors that arguments between the faculty and administration are so bitter and critical because the stakes are so low.   If parents aren’t careful, a similar dynamic can exist in family life no matter how big or small your family is.   If the brothers and sisters get the impression that there just isn’t enough love and attention to go around, they will tear each other apart to get their bite at the scraps. Getting regular one-on-one time with your children is one, important way to beat this.  Getting one-on-one time in a large family doesn’t have to be a daunting proposition.   We know an excellent mom and dad of 11 kids who each keep a list of their kids in their pockets with check marks to see who has gotten to accompany that parent to the store or on some other errand.   They’ll regularly consult the list and invite one of their children along for the ride and some alone time with mom or dad.   Plus, each parent has a schedule where they get monthly dates with their kids.   It takes effort with such a large family, but their commitment is deeply appreciated by their children.

2.   Use Do-Overs to Teach Positive Interactions Among Sibs.

I regularly recommend that parents use “do-overs” to correct disrespectful speech and actions toward them or between their children.   Most disrespectful or aggressive behavior between children is due to kids genuinely not knowing how to express tough emotions like anger, frustration, or impatience in a faithful, effective way.   It’s up to us to teach them.   When one child speaks inappropriately to his brother or sister.   Give him the words to express his feeling respectfully and then make him actually say those words–with the right tone of voice and facial expression–to the sibling he offended.   Have him repeat it until he gets it right.   If he still won’t do it after 3- or so tries, send him to time out until he is willing to say it…properly.   The child needs to get the message that respecting his siblings is too important and that he will not be permitted to go on with his life until he has demonstrated that he is capable of expressing his emotions properly.   When they realize you’re serious, they’ll do it, and soon, they’ll be treating each other with respect without you making them do it because you will have given them the skills to succeed.

3.   Encourage Teamwork and Mutual Service

It is good to give kids individual chores for which they can be held responsible, but it is equally important to give kids a chance to work together and help each other by having certain chores the whole family does together as a team.   The rule to completing a chore as a team is that everyone must work to their full potential, but when one person is done with their part, they must go and help a sibling until the whole task has been completed.   If a child is dragging his feet you can deal with that later by assigning additional chores for “generosity practice”   but that’s a separate issue.   Give kids the opportunity to work together and take care of each other; to be part of a family team.

Likewise, encourage your kids to do little acts of kindness for each other.   One thing we’ve done is have the kids write a list of things that make them feel cared for or appreciated.   Things like “Getting to ride shot-gun”, or “Getting to go first with the video game” , or “having my favorite ice cream in the freezer.”   We have our kids exchange their lists with the expectation that they will all do something thoughtful for each other from the list every day.   The kids then share what they did for each other at dinner.   Getting this started can require some parental encouragement and correction (especially if a child tries to get away with doing the same, too-easy, thing every day).   But with appropriate support, your kids will come to appreciate the little ways you are teaching them to care for each other and look out for each other.

We offer many more ideas like this in the Sibling Revelry chapter of Parenting with Grace.  The point is, by being intentional about teaching your kids virtues like generosity, thoughtfulness, service, and respect, you can help your family become the school of love the Church says it was meant to be.   You will not only benefit your family, but your kid’s kids as well. For more information on how to raise kids in a godly manner, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach  and get the skills you need to succeed.

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