I’m sitting down to write about siblings, and all sorts of thoughts are swirling through my mind.

Running down to our basement playroom with my two sisters after dinner, to play with our “village” of doll houses. Christmas caroling with my sisters and our friends, when we were in junior high and high school. Working with my sister in our college snack bar or partying together in college. Partying again years later after my sisters and I had all moved to New York. Listening to my mom and her five sisters tell stories reaching back 40, 50 and 60 years to their childhood. Watching my two sons playing Uno together, rolling around together in the bathtub or building a “machine” together out of blocks, cars, chairs, blankets.

Eventually they realized, "Hey, this kid's ok."

Yes, yes, you’re thinking. We get it. Siblings are great. They are, and they also can be one of the biggest challenges that parents face.

Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring, quite often the hard way. -Pamela Dugdale

At a recent Share and Learn session for Seedlings parents, we went around the room, naming issues and asking questions that arose from having more than one child. As each mom took her turn, there was a lot of nodding and many knowing looks. Siblings fight. They tease, poke, hit, taunt and mock one another. They’re compared to one another and labeled. They grow up together, competing for attention, affection and toys.

Painting together

How should parents deal with some of these common issues?

I was one of the many parents in the room who said her kids are prone to bickering. Susan’s solution? Let them work it out. If they’re not hurting one another, don’t run to intervene. Make sure they are each able to express their desires, and then allow them to figure out their squabbles on their own. In doing so, they are learning important conflict resolution skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

It’s important to remember that it’s not always the older children who pick on the younger ones. Lots of times, a younger sibling is doing the clobbering. In those cases, ensure that all the children in the family have a voice, and that older siblings aren’t being silently tormented.

Another common challenge raised among the parents: one of my children demands more attention than the other(s). Many moms feel guilty about giving one child more time than his siblings, but remember that when it comes to siblings (or any two people), things will never be exactly equal. In fact, it’s pointless to try to make things equal. Instead, deal with each child according to his or her need at that moment. Each will have times when he needs more time and attention, and that’s when he should get it.

Just being together.

What about kids who are labeled? The smart one, the athletic one, the high-maintenance one.  Do everything you can to avoid labels and comparisons between your children, because labels can stay with a person throughout her life, even becoming self-fulfilling prophesies. Rather than limiting a child with a label, talk about, and with, her in more general terms that leave possibilities open. Instead of telling a little girl how pretty she is, ask her what she’s reading.

Labels and definitions can lead children to be competitive and to ask difficult questions. A child who asks of her sister, “Do you love her more?,” is saying that she needs you to show her how much you do love her. She needs some tangible support and encouragement.

One way to provide this is to schedule one-on-one time with your children, both with mom and dad. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Even five minutes away from a demanding newborn, or a once-a-month date is important because it shows your child he’s valued. Help your child make a list of things he’d like to do during his date night with daddy or mommy, and those moments will become something he can look forward to.

Finally, should we force our children to share? No, not always. Children shouldn’t have to share everything. They should each have some things — books or toys or special objects — that are theirs alone. They should each have some time when they can be by themselves, undisturbed by siblings. If they sleep in the same room, make time for them when they can be in the room alone, or set them up in another room where they can play alone.

If your children are anything like mine, pretty soon, they’ll be playing together again.

Sweet brothers

© Victoria Green and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011