"A mother of a three-year-old son and one-year-old twins told me that her oldest son was getting rough with his little brothers. She often had to stop him from hurting them. It dawned on her that when he was being friendly, she left him alone, but when he was aggressive he got her full attention. She devoted special times for him and began to look for moments to compliment him when he was being cooperative. With that kind of attention from her, he was able to better manage times with his brothers."

Brothers and Sisters

Brothers and sisters shape a child's early experiences, almost as much as parents do. In the everyday ups and downs of family life, children learn about getting along with people who have different perspectives and different abilities. Living through each day, they come to understand something essential about love: there can be times of impatience as well as kindness, disappointment as well as thoughtfulness, anger as well as forgiveness. Even though brothers and sisters may fight and disagree, they have a unique connection.

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Sharing Parents’ Love

brothers and sisters Mistert Rogers parentingIt's right in the family that children encounter their first intense competition, especially between the first born and the baby brother or sister. Even older children who are secure in their family may have ambivalent feelings about the new baby. Anybody would like to be his or her parents' "one and only" loved child, but giving that up can be an enormous boost in growing. And, of course, it allows the older child to discover first hand the joys of being a brother or sister.

Different Ages, Different Interests

Because competition is so much a part of the relationship between the first and second child, those two children particularly may have a lot of conflicts. Many of those conflicts happen because younger children idolize their older brothers and sisters and want so much to be a part of their play. But their age differences -- with their different abilities and needs – sometimes make playing together really hard, if not impossible. The older child is excited about learning and mastering new things and is not very concerned with the things that matter to the younger child. And the younger often hasn't the slightest idea what the older brother or sister wants or needs. It can take a long time before they're able to play well together, and even then, they may have quite different interests.

Most families find that competition lessens as their children get older and become involved in activities outside the home, when they aren't so dependent on their parents for approval and recognition. The competition also tends to ease when children know that we parents see each one of our children as a unique individual, without comparing or making them follow in each other's footsteps. When our children sense that we value each one's gifts, talents, and ideas, then they're more likely to grow into people who have that kind of respect for each other.

Parents’ Expectations

When parents bring another baby into the family, they can be concerned about the challenges of caring for and loving another child. But they can also feel there's something very special about giving their older child (or children) a "gift" of a lifetime friend who shares the family history. Our expectations and fantasies about that probably have a lot to do with our own growing up, with or without brothers and sisters.

Parents are often disappointed when their children aren't "good buddies," but in most families it takes a long time for brothers and sisters to work through their competition for their parents' attention. It can also take a great deal of work to help the older ones learn to be understanding and patient with the younger ones, and the younger ones to be considerate of the older ones.

Mediating Conflicts

Mister Rogers Parenting BookChildren sometimes try to draw their parents into their squabbles. Each one wants to hear you say, "You're the good one --the favorite"--and make the other "the bad one -- the outcast." Rather than judging who's right and who's wrong, it's better to help your children learn to listen to each other (without interrupting) and work together to settle their own conflicts. It’s helpful for parents to say, "I know you both want to play with the same thing. Let's think of some ways to work it out." It’s best not to take sides, place blame, or focus on what caused the problem. Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children -- now and for the rest of their lives.

Each Child Is Unique

It's only natural that a parent will be more in tune with one (or some) of his or her children than others, maybe because of that child's temperament, interests, gender or birth order. Because parents sometimes feel guilty about having that kind of connection with one of their children, they may overcompensate with the others, giving them more attention or being more lenient with them. Children can sense when there's something unnatural like that going on with their parents, and that can make them feel uneasy. If parents understand that it's perfectly normal to feel more in tune with one child than another, they may be able to put their guilt aside so it won't get in the way when they're trying to be fair with each of their children.

And it's fairness among our children that we want to achieve -- not equality. It isn't fair to treat children equally if they have different abilities, needs, and interests. If one child needs -- and gets -- more help, attention, or comfort from us, the others will sense that we'll be there for them, too, when they need us. And through our example, our children are more likely to be sensitive when a brother or sister one of them is in need of applause or extra support. Being there for each other, through the good times and the bad is the best "gift" that you're enabling the brothers and sisters to give to each other.

  • Make sure your children have some time away from each other. Let them know it's even okay to say something like, "I can't play with you now, but I will later" (but be sure they keep that promise of coming back later to play). If you make children include their brothers or sisters too much of the time, they can grow to be resentful.
  • Encourage your children to do something together that's non-competitive and creative, like making paper chains or playing with play clay or art materials. Let them know that you value the uniqueness of what each of them can do.
  • Try your best to give each child some of your undivided attention, perhaps at bedtime, when a younger child naps, after dinner, or on the weekend. When children know they can count on having some time with you all by themselves, they may be better able to manage when you can't give them your full attention.
  • If possible, make different bedtimes for your children so that each child can have some one-on-one time with you before going to sleep. That's a very important time for saying, "I love you" to each child.
  • Many families find that conflicts decrease if the older children know there are some things they do not have to share. Those things can be put out of reach of the younger ones. If there are some things children don't ever have to share, they're often willing to share other things.
  • When one child has a friend over for play, it's important not to insist that they include a brother or sister in their play. Find something you can do with your other child, like working on a meal together, reading a book, or asking that child to play near you.
  • If you know another family with children about the same age as yours, see if the two older ones could play together in one home, while the two younger ones are at the other home. Being apart with different friends for some of the time can help brothers and sisters manage better when they are together.

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