The home and family is the first and most important social relationship for children. It’s where they are shown and begin to learn how people treat other people while recognizing that everyone has individual rights and needs.
The primary responsibility of parents is to teach siblings how to live together based on virtue.
Practicing virtue teaches children to be friends with each other before they learn to fight with each other. The habit of being virtuous is acquired gradually over time and progress is based on the child’s age and development. The suggested sequence was introduced in:
The parent’s role in promoting sibling harmony is as a facilitator, setting conditions that foster a compatible relationship between them, rather than doing things directly for the children.
Friendship, along with honesty, is in the first group of virtues that should evolve in young children. Friendship skills are paramount from the sibling relationship perspective. Parents should set expectations that each child must and will learn:
- to adapt to the other;
- to share their parents with each other;
- to understand how the other functions;
- to make himself or herself understood; and
- to enjoy each other’s company.
When a new baby arrives, parents may worry that the older child will feel deserted. It’s essential to lay the groundwork so that one day the embattled siblings see each other as a source of pleasure and support. Hopefully the day will come when siblings:
- recognize that each is a gift to the other;
- discover the rewards of sharing and cooperation;
- practice positive ways to get attention from each other, for example when approaching the other child to ask them to play;
- share their belongings and toys; and
- share their skills by teaching the sibling how to become more proficient.
It’s hard to hate and hit a person you care about and who cares about you. As siblings strive to prove their uniqueness they don’t have to become adversaries. Parents must not permit this to happen.
Start early by involving your toddler in the new baby’s needs and emerging lifestyle. Ask for the toddler’s advice and help when dressing the baby. ’What outfit do you think the baby would like to wear today?’, or ‘What story shall we tell the baby?’ Encourage the toddler to make the baby smile, laugh, and have fun.
Make family time together a regular enjoyable event. Family meals should be a pleasure because of each other’s company and the sharing of ideas as well as a healthy meal.
Family activities and excursions should be fun for everyone. The more good times the children experience with each other, the more likely they will deal fairly and gracefully when conflicts occur between them.
Encourage the older child to play with and entertain the toddler while you are busy getting other things done.
One of the keys to life-long friendship is being sensitive to one another. The need for compassion is sometimes very obvious, for example when the other person is hurt or injured. Teach the child to be productive in the other child’s healing process. It may mean helping by getting materials (bandage, water), applying (bandage, cream), or just comforting.
It’s hard for toddlers to learn to sense when another person feels hurt or anxious. Here‘s where the parent has to set the right example. It begins with the parent listening, intently, to how the toddler really feels about the baby. It’s a communication challenge since the toddler is short on the words necessary to explain his or her feelings. The parent must help the toddler put his feelings into words without judging them. These feelings must be acknowledged, not denied.
It may take a while, but as the toddler learns to appreciate his own feelings and needs, at some point he can be encouraged to consider what the baby’s feelings and needs are.
Back to the reality of the moment – all children feel jealous of others at times. Toddlers will find it hard to control their feelings. There will be times when your two-year-old gets aggressive and hits or throws something at his new sibling.
It is normal. It is a learning moment. In a loving way, help the toddler to recognize, acknowledge, and identify his feelings. Talk about his feelings and explain that they are natural, normal, and to be expected. However not hurting someone is even more important. Help the child to discover that hurting someone is not the way to deal with one’s feelings. Talking about them is a start to finding better ways.
Family trips and activities are a chance to have fun together. When done right, they build team spirit and loyalty not only in play, but also in working together. Camping, for example, includes a lot of chores before getting down to the fun stuff. Siblings learn to share responsibilities and how to participate in group activities.
Children should be encouraged to settle their own disputes as much as possible. This may be tough to imagine with a two-year-old, but it’s not too early to set the stage by encouraging him to find solutions on his own. It may be a gentle suggestion to play in another room if the baby is bothering him.
How about giving the older child supervised responsibility for the younger one. There are plenty of jobs that he can do, for example:
- helping during the baby’s bath by holding towels and eventually helping to wash her legs in the bath,
- choosing the outfit the baby will wear,
- finding nappies and changing bags,
- pushing the stroller,
- when she cries, singing to her, talking gently to her, or find her favourite plush toy,
- gently holding and patting the baby.
These activities build the habit of caring as a mutual bond develops between the two of them.
Set your kids up to cooperate rather than compete. For example, have them race the clock to pick up toys, instead of racing each other. Teach them to work together by cleaning up the garage or setting the table for dinner.
Resources that were helpful in compiling these idea are:
T. Berry Brazelton & Joshua D. Sparrow, Understanding Sibling Rivalry, The Brazelton Way, Da Capo Lifelong Books, Cambridge, MA, 2005,