Ask the Grumpies: Siblings getting along

Ree asks:

Would love to know if you come across good advice books for handling sibling relationships. I can’t even get my four- and two-year-old to hold hands, and I hope they turn out to have a better relationship. I don’t how to model, as my brother and I didn’t come to terms until our mid-20s.

We’d love advice on this too.  (Well, actually only #1 really cares, #2 is childfree by choice and intends to remain so.  But she puts up with #1 anyway.)

As noted in a previous post, #1 wasn’t all that impressed with the first edition of Siblings Without Rivalry that she read.  Some of the info was good, some was obvious, and some was exactly wrong and potentially dangerous.  Without a good research base to help separate the wheat from the chaff, she can’t really recommend it as a good advice book for handling sibling relationships.  Perhaps the most recent edition is better, we don’t know.

My main concern is not that the kids are bosom buddies or whatever… I just want a peaceful home in which everyone knows they’re on the same team, our family team.  I wanna be able to say, “Hey guys, knock that off,” and then blessed silence descends.  Perhaps not the goal of every parent when it comes to sibling relations, but I’m big on autonomy.

My sister and I are quite a few years apart and my parents did a lot of stuff that the SWR book said not to.. basically putting me in the role of second parent.  But it worked out, especially when my parents had to live apart for their careers.  I liked being responsible.  My sister kept out of trouble with me in charge.  We got along reasonably well, though with the occasional catty remark, but only if my parents were around (she still does this!), and a large portion of growing up when I wanted to be left alone and she was bored and wanted attention (I guess I’m still an introvert and she’s still an extrovert).  We don’t really socialize as adults for fun other than family outings (there’s really a generational X/Y difference) but she’s a fantastic aunt and we’ll call each other up for advice on one thing or another.  She knows that if she needs a place for her and 10 of her displaced friends to crash until power is restored in the city, our guest bedroom is available.  I know that if we need to be picked up from the airport in the city at midnight she’ll get out of bed.  (Or if I need to be rescued in the city from getting my car hit by a pick-up truck and losing my front bumper, she’ll take care of things and tie the bumper back on and send me on my way.)  That’s what family does.  “We take care of our own,” is a common phrase in my mom’s extended family.  And we do.

My DH gets along quite well with his siblings.  He’s also about the same number of years older than his brother, but they’re really good friends and have been as long as DH can remember (along with a slightly older cousin of theirs, making a trifecta).  There’s another year between him and his sister after that.  He and his sister have always gotten along but they don’t have much in common.  His little brother and little sister did a lot of squabbling with each other growing up, but mostly left DH alone.  I’m not sure why things were like that.  Would he have squabbled with his brother if there had been no little sister?  Or would they have gotten along just fine anyway?

One thing that we’re going to try is all those nifty mediation techniques that DC’s preschool teaches the kids.  Maybe the same things that help kids get along with unrelated kids will help them get along with siblings.  It’s worth a shot anyway.

Do/Did you have a good relationship with your sibs?  Is there peace among the children in your household?  If so, what’s your secret?  And do you have any good books to recommend to Ree?

44 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Siblings getting along”

  1. eemusings Says:

    Nope. Hated my brother with a passion (six year age gap). Hated that constant line about ‘setting an example’ for him.

    I feel terrible about it all now, thinking about how horrible I used to be toward him.

  2. mareserinitatis Says:

    I’m not going to be very popular for this, especially since it’s too late for the writer of the query: have kids at least 5 years apart. I won’t say my kids get along awesomely, but the older one has enough understanding that he can tolerate his brother (as much as a teenager can tolerate anyone). I had a horrid relationship with one sister (two years younger) and an okay one with the sister who was four years younger but am not terribly close to either (although we get along fine now). Also, friends who came from bigger families said they had less conflict with siblings who were fairly different in age. I personally think that when they’re so close in age, neither can take the ‘high ground’ and there are too many jealousy issues, starting from day one.

    Of course, that is not based on research, just my own observations.

  3. Kellen Says:

    I think making the older sibling understand that they have some responsibility to take care of the younger one probably helps, because then they might feel guilty for hurting/upsetting the child that they have been taught they have a responsibility to look out for in some ways. My older sister only ever learned that since she was older she could boss me around/tell me what to do.

  4. Says:

    My younger sister and I are separated by about five years, and we vehemently hated each other through most of our K-12 education (we were just close enough where she wanted to be just like me, and just far away enough where our life experiences were never equatable – what 15 y/o wants her 10 y/o sister tagging along to the movies? – and she took out her frustrations of not being able to participate by being mean – we were both pretty wretched to each other). Only once I moved out of the house and we rarely saw each other could we value each other’s presence more. We’re now becoming closer friends, but I think this has to do with us both being in our 20s.

    Alternately, my BF and his brother are 18 months apart, and have hung out together since they were young. I’m sure they fought occasionally when they were young, but since I’ve known them (since I was 6) they’ve always been close.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My mom used to send my sister to hang out with me whenever I was alone at home with a boy, say, watching a movie. When my sister was out, she’d send the dog, as the dog would start barking anytime two people started kissing (even my parents).

      • rented life Says:

        I would LOVE to train the dog to bark when my parents start kissing…I owe then years of revenge from when I was dating

  5. bogart Says:

    My recollection is that my brother (3y age difference, I’m the older one) and I were peaceful cohabitants, not to say friends, as kids, and we’re close (conceptually, not, unfortunately, geographically) as adults. I worked as a live-in nanny for a mom to 2 girls, ages 3 & 5 and then 4 & 6 for 2 summers, and her approach (and thus mine) was totally, “Both of you go to your rooms RIGHT NOW” if there was any disturbance. My sense was that the effect this had on the girls (at least those girls) was that they learned to work out or avoid their differences quietly. I have certainly heard the theory that parents seeking to act as mediators (who started it, etc.) has exactly the wrong effect, as it means that kids get parental attention for, well, all the wrong reasons.

    I’ve found the website to have tons of good information about different parenting issues and solutions, and scrolling down the list of topics on its right-hand side, I do see “siblings.”

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      mediation is exactly the opposite of “who started it” that has another name
      mediation is facilitating people to solve their differences themselves, in the preschool setting it usually involves reminding kids things like, “Did you tell her you don’t like that?” The problem and problem solving is the focus rather than the people.

      • bogart Says:

        Yeah, I have to admit I assumed that though I don’t in fact know about it WRT the preschool set (How embarrassing! But with a singleton who’s been (touch wood) phenomenally easy-going, I haven’t had to do much except thank my lucky stars on this dimension.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We had to do mediation training when we were working as resident assistants. Sometimes you just want to say, “He’s wrong, she’s right” but that’s not what mediation is about— the mediator is a neutral third party who helps facilitate communication only.

      • bogart Says:


      • bogart Says:

        Except on reflection, still the same problem (if it is one): kid disputes lead to parental attention (if a parent is doing the mediation) and thus (again, per the thinking involved here) are rewarded and so, encouraged. Much less an issue for RAs than parents, I’d think. Eh, whatever works — as I say, this (sibling disputes) is a non-issue for me, but all the same I’d think whether one is mediating or litigating (who started it), the same shortcoming of this approach (specifically as a way for parents to interact with kids) arises.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The goal is to teach the kids self-mediation. So the daycare teachers don’t go over to the disputing kids, they just remind the kid what to say (“Did you tell hir X?”). Generally there’s just a misunderstanding and they fix it themselves.

      • bogart Says:

        Alright but I am stubbornly going to persist in hypothesizing that the mediator advisor matters, i.e. that something that works well when done by preschool teachers may not when done by parents, and vice-versa. All that said, as I say (a) this is for me a purely academic question but (b) not one that I myself am proposing to research (or even conduct a lit review upon). So. Should you decide to look for, and find (or not look for, but nonetheless stumble across), research that’s been done on the topic I’d love to know about it, but otherwise I will bow out simply wishing those that do need to deal with this issue the best in finding a solution that works well for them.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We found that matching the daycare culture at home didn’t hurt at either of the two daycares DC has been to. (The other one was a mainstream religious sharing-based culture.)

        I will say that I’ve never met the kid of a counselor who wasn’t totally screwed up.

      • bogart Says:

        Ha. Yes, part of what motivates my concern/curiosity on this question (teachers versus parents etc.) is knowing the adult child of one of my DS’s preschool teachers.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’ve often suspected that when it’s your job *and* your kid, the kid doesn’t feel special, just like another patient. But there are alternate explanations, including selection into counseling (people often go into psychology to figure out why they’re messed up).

        Since DC1 is already indoctrinated into the mediation culture both from Montessori and from hir cozy private school and DC2 will most likely go to the same schools (ze is on the Montessori waitlist) I doubt reinforcing it at home will cause any problems. (And we don’t treat our kids like we treat other people’s kids. Heck, we don’t interact with other people’s kids if we can help it!)

  6. First Gen American Says:

    I was an only child, so I have no idea on what I’d be like with a sibling. My 2 boys fight a lot (3.5 years apart). It’s almost a sport for them to wrestle and pound each other. It used to really bother me but I’m told it’s normal by my spouse who has a brother the exact same age difference. I’m still working through how to teach the boys not to default to beating on each other every time the other one does something that isn’t liked. So far, the “how would you like it if I punched you every time you didn’t listen to me?” hasn’t worked. Still trying to figure out something more effective. So far, the only effective thing for me is taking away things they’ll miss as punishment, like video game and tv time. Sending kids to their room actually doesn’t work either because the older one just grabs a book and starts reading or starts organizing his pokemon cards. It’s not really a punishment.

    For the record, my older one also hates being told that he should set a good example for the younger one. He just thinks he’s not being treated equally with the younger one and it seems like equality and “fairness” is more important than being in charge. Actually, the younger one feels the same way too. Interesting topic.

  7. Linda Says:

    I’m not a parent and I was going to hazard a guess that the genders of the siblings may make a difference. After reading the responses, though, forget that idea.

    My sister and I sort of get along now, but definitely did not during the years we lived in the same house with our parents. The family dysfunction complicated the sibling relationship quite a bit, and continues to do so. There were times that she used physical force on me, but the one that really stands out is the time she turned me in to my father for having something in my purse that I shouldn’t (we were teens at the time and it was marijuana) which resulted in a bunch of a very weird things like: a suicide attempt by my mother and her handing me a bunch of pills so I could join her; and my father taking me for evaluation at a drug rehab center. (Geez, who needed the drugs taken away from her, people! The one who wanted to look cool or the one who guzzled them down trying to end her life!)

    My sister (about 2 years older than me) is still playing the role of managing my mom when we’re visiting her together. I’ve come to the conclusion that I should do mom visits on my own now. (Mom doesn’t seem inclined to attempt suicide in front of me anymore since a time I told her to just go ahead and do it and let me sleep so I could get up for work the next morning. I guess she was willing to make herself vomit for attention but not actually kill herself for realz.) This doesn’t seem to be the case with my dad, but sister has been pretty angry with dad for the past few years so she doesn’t propose many joint visits to see him.

    I like the standard you’re shooting for, though. Expecting siblings to be friends with each other is tough, but simply expecting them to knock off unwanted behavior when you demand it sounds like a good approach.

  8. Amy Says:

    My general impression is that parenting books are either horrid (i.e. don’t match your worldview) or fabulous (i.e. match your worldview and childrearing experiences). I’ve had very respected friends tell me about parenting books that they loved but I couldn’t stand and Siblings Without Rivalry was one of them. My two kids (girl then boy, 2.5 yrs apart) fight a lot. The girl hated “that baby” for years, but just now has started to find him fun to play with (he’s 3.75 now). I expect it to go in stages – animosity, mutual fun, one feeling left out, etc. I don’t think there is a magic formula. I just hope that if we are consistent with the “we’re all on the same team” message, they’ll like each other as adults (and like us, too!).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well… if a parenting book is well-researched enough, I will trust it to change my world view a bit. So… Our Babies Ourselves allowed me to stop worrying and trust my instincts. Dr. Sears, although he had the same message, but without any citations for me to look up, did not. Research on mindsets (especially among gifted kids) got me to be very careful about praising fixed characteristics in a way that parenting books saying not to praise did not. I would love a siblings book that actually had citations that I could read and make my own decisions about the research quality and applicability to my own kids.

      Oh, and how could I forget Diaper Free Before 3? Totally transformed how we thought about potty training!

      • Angie Says:

        Would you share what research on gifted mindsets you found helpful? Thanks!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Mindsets in general– not just gifted. Check out the book Mindset by Carol Dwork. Though, of course, research in perfectionism matches up with it– if you look at the gifted tag there’s a post on books we found helpful on gifted kids.

  9. rented life Says:

    My brother and I are four years apart and where physically abusive to each other for years–he had an anger problem, I had to defend myself and mom and dad’s idea
    of dealing was ignoring problems and maybe it’ll all go away. We got along later on (teens thru early 20’s) but that’s shifting again. We’re so different,
    and were treated so differently growing up (which I don’t think helped). If he were a random guy I doubt I’d be friends with him because we’ve both changed so much and no longer share most values. I can’t hardly relate him anymore. Makes me sad.

    I don’t think years apart matters–seeing friends who are/aren’t close to their siblings and there’s all kinds of age rangers.

  10. J Liedl Says:

    My sister and I are about three years apart (she’s the elder) and we got along fairly well. Being able to “get away” from each other on occasion is vital for siblings. Too much togetherness rankles and that goes for activities as well as physical location. If one prefers swimming over softball, see if you can accommodate both interests at the appropriate times.

    Don’t give into the tit for tat mentality that some kids promote. “Jane got a bike when she was six, I had to wait ’til I was seven. No fair!” Examine your behaviour to see if you’re unreasonably favouring one child over the other and, if not, explain to the complaining child that life isn’t about counting up points or making the same milestones, but treating everyone appropriately.

    Our girls are 1.5 years apart and youngest’s autism has been a big factor in all of our lives since we first realized there was something seriously at issue with her (around two years of age). Eldest is sometimes too much of a mother-hen and director for her sister.If Youngest was neurotypical, that would send her into frenzies of rage, I expect. As it is, she accepts that she needs a lot more help and she gets a lot less freedom: she’ll never drive a car due to her seizures, she doesn’t get to go out alone to the mall or even around the neighbourhood because she can’t monitor herself or get home responsibly, etc., etc. Seeing those limitations helped Eldest deal with the way that Youngest got a lot of extra attention and stuff, although the preschool and grade school years still weren’t always the easiest.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One thing in SWR, the old edition, that it noted from their focus groups but did not really go into, was that when a family had a hardship the siblings tended to get along well (not always, of course, but those were the only examples they had of kids actually getting along *in the entire book*). They would pull together. But that was kind of set aside and not explored. I do think, if they’re going to write a researchless book anyway, that they might be able to think about what kinds of things cause kids to pull together as a team even if they don’t have an alcoholic father or single working mom etc. (In fact, maybe sibling rivalry means kids just aren’t doing enough chores and other work!)

      • bogart Says:

        It’s funny b/c as I was musing over this post on my drive home it hit me that one of the things I’m saddest about for my DS not having a close-in-age sibling is there will be no one who will share the experience of growing up in *this* dysfunctional family, and, relatedly, that I think that (having shared growing in the same dysfunctional family as one another) is part of what gives me and my brother a certain closeness. I mean, there’s really no one else I can call and say, “So, this time Daddy said …” and not have to provide any backstory.

        (You might, I suppose, argue that I should focus on having *our* family be functional, and, sure. But I figure we’ve all got enough quirkiness around the edges, even though I hope DH and I aren’t, actually, dysfunctional)

  11. Ree Says:

    Thanks for posting this. As I started reading through the comments, I had an internal “I wish!” to the commenter who said I should have had them further apart. I think it would have helped my sanity the most, but then life happens as it happens. As someone else advised, I’m an Ask Moxie reader but much of the site is devoted to young toddlers, not my age group. I think I’ve read every post on hitting in the archives.

    What has helped the most so far is getting them out of the house to play with other kids. It’s hard for me, because I’m shy and even after four years in a new town have not met a lot of new people. But the more they get to be social with other kids, the better they treat each other (at least the same day).

  12. Cloud Says:

    I think a lot of it is just luck, frankly. We seem to have gotten lucky in how our girls get along, at least so far. We may have done a few things right- probably the biggest is focusing on not making the older kid feel like she was losing freedom and attention because of her little sister (even though objectively, she was). We had a couple of books that helped us- but remember our older one was 2.5 years old when the little one was born. We had one by Fred Rogers which was great, and then the one everyone recommends “I am a big sister” (there’s also a “I’m a big brother” version) by Joanna Coles.

    But mostly, we’ve just been lucky.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC has really been loving What Baby Needs by the Dr. Sears group. It’s nice because it focuses on the positive and what ze can do to help out the family and the new baby.

  13. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

    From reading all these responses and what I see day to day with other families,
    it just seems like it comes down to personalities more than anything.

    My brother and I are 8 years apart and didn’t fight, since he was so much
    younger, so I guess it was fairly peaceful in the house, but we’re not close now (or
    then) either.

    Then again, I know people who are less than 2 years apart with their sibs and
    weren’t close as kids and not as adults either, so it’s defintely not a function of
    age difference.

    I think a lot of it is luck, but there are things that parents can do to undermine the
    relationship. That’s why I liked SWR – I thought it was good at providing
    *Suggestions* of things to try/not do. I didn’t take it as gospel truth bc so much
    will depend on the kids’ personalities. But I did agree with a lot of their “not do”
    stuff personally, as per what happened in my own family growing up.

  14. jlp Says:

    What I can remember of SWR, I liked. But now I am left wondering — what is it that they got exactly wrong? I’d love it if you’d elucidate!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Tattling was one of the things. They didn’t realize back in 1987 that when you institute a culture of punishing kids for tattling that most kids aren’t able to distinguish between important and unimportant things (something they argue kids are able to do, but research says otherwise)… which leads to a silent culture of bullying, not telling about molesters etc.

      There was some other stuff too, that’s just what I remember off the top of my head. Like we said, some stuff was obvious (like, Duh, of course you don’t say, “Why can’t you be more like your perfect sibling” or “He’s the smart one, she’s the pretty one”), some stuff they were prescient on (much of the growth vs. fixed mindset research hadn’t occurred yet), and some stuff they were wrong about. So the other stuff that we don’t do naturally… is it worth changing our behavior or would that just harm things… without a research base it is hard to tell.

      • Perpetua Says:

        The anti-tattling business is still in force. I was horrified when I got my son to tell me that his friend at school had scratched him (and drawn blood). I asked him if he asked a teacher, and he said, no (the teacher) said we’re not allowed to. He didn’t use to the word “tattle” but that was clearly what was going on. Perhaps the teachers encourage them to work things out first, or to use words if someone’s doing something you don’t like. But seriously? This kid was hurting my kid! He should be encourage to tell! I have long loathed the anti-tattling stuff, and feared the results, just instinctively.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s one of those things that separates good preschools from not as good preschools. The kids in our neighborhood go to not as good a preschool and I was just horrified at their behavior back when we were trying to do playgroups. But, our preschool director teaches childhood development classes and the entire school has a great culture. And one in which they can go to the teachers and trust that it’s ok.

        One of the reasons their mediation works, I think, is because they start with this belief that children are basically good but need guidance and direction. Kids want to do the right thing. So the culture (reinforced by both teachers and kids) reminds them that hitting hurts people and we don’t hurt our friends, and if someone does hurt someone (usually only accidentally), they have a little ritual that they go through that seems to make everybody happy at the end. It’s really amazing seeing the transformation that new kids go through as they adjust to the culture. I’ve often wished that all adults had the training all the 3-5 year olds at our Montessori have.

      • Cloud Says:

        Our day care has a sign up that draws a useful distinction between tattling (done to get someone in trouble about behavior that isn’t hurting anyone) and telling (done to stop trouble about behavior that is hurting someone or is potentially dangerous). I can’t remember the details, unfortunately. I’ve seen a similar set of distinctions several other places. It seems like a good approach to me, and given what I know of our day care director, I suspect it is research backed. But I haven’t checked into it myself.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I just don’t think little kids are good at telling the difference. (And from what I’ve read, they’re not.)

        Interestingly, at the Montessori I’ve never seen a kid try to get another kid in trouble. That idea would be completely foreign, at least to the kids who have been there a while (maybe not if they have older siblings).

  15. Grace Says:

    My sister and only sibling is 10 months younger than me. She was always prettier and more popular and way nicer than me. I was smarter, but I would have given that up in an instant if it would have made me thinner and gotten me a boyfriend. My jealousy meant that there was no prayer of closeness during our childhood. We didn’t physically fight, but we didn’t like each other much, either. That all changed in college where we both went to a large state institution. Unlike the small town we grew up in, we now both had enough room to establish our own friends and our own lives without constant comparisons. Funny thing about college–she discovered she was as smart as I was, and I got a boyfriend of my own. Somewhere along the line, we became true friends as well as sisters. Now, we’re both in our sixties and though we live on different coasts we talk, e-mail and visit all the time. I don’t know what the parenting books would say about us, but that’s how it turned out.

  16. Ask the grumpies: Suggestions on books for the new sibling? « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured Says:

    […] talked a bit about books for parents on sibling rivalry, but came up with pretty much a blank.  However, there are a lot of books aimed at kids […]

  17. plantingourpennies Says:

    There are 3 of us, separated by 2 years each. In order of appearance, Sister, Brother, Me (baby). Sister and I shared a bedroom, brother and I shared schools most of the time. All in all, it was way too much togetherness.
    When I was elementary school aged, I felt a lot older than the kids in my class, but when I tried to hang out with my sister’s friends (okay really I wanted to be in OM with them) when they came over that caused all sorts of drama. Similar drama surrounded me getting lumped into my brother’s after school activities as well. He didn’t want me in the chess club, and I didn’t want to be there either. But there I was.
    I know I was young and socially awkward, but I’m not sure I was 100% the cause of the countless fights that we had as kids. Though I’ll cop to 33.3%.
    My sister’s pet name for me was (still is) “Brat”… though at least now 16 years later it’s turned into a term of endearment and we are each others’ favorite blood relative. While sometimes I wish we had been closer as kids, I’m not sure we’d be able to have the same trust and confidence in each other that we do now if we hadn’t “earned it” as adults.

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