1. From the beginning, encourage them to serve one another.
Even a toddler can bring his baby sister a bottle, or his older sister a juice box. Help them develop a sense of each other as helpers instead of competitors. Now that my kids are older, they are quick to ask each other for help with homework, snack-making, bike-fixing–and it all started with serving each other in simple ways as soon as they could walk.
2. Reward all the siblings for one child’s accomplishments.
If one child got a special award at school, take the whole family out for ice cream! Let the other kids know their sister has earned a special treat for all of them. In this way they learn that their success benefits their whole family, and take pride in it. Nothing builds a family’s “team spirit” like celebrating successes together.
3. Never blame the baby.
When I was pregnant or had a newborn, I tried to remember to say, “I’m tired right now” or “I’m busy,” instead of, “The baby is making me tired” or “I need to nurse the baby.” Drawing attention to the baby as a tiny vampire of Mommy’s resources is a quick way to cultivate an older child’s resentment. If you blame the baby for the energy you don’t have, your toddler will too!
4. Don’t focus on keeping everything exactly equal every time.
I know lots of families that go to great lengths to make sure that every single thing is distributed in equal portions, or else the children cry foul that “he got more than me!” Parents always seem to accept that as a reasonable complaint, and try to fix it. Here’s a revolutionary idea: demanding an equal share in everything is unreasonable. In life, you will never be happy if you look at your neighbor’s plate to decide whether you are happy with your own. I think this is a critical life skill, and teaching it starts at home. Sometimes one child is hungrier, or their shoes are more worn out, or they had an especially rough day and need some special attention. With a fair-minded parent, it all comes out even in the long run, whether or not it’s exactly fair in this moment. So your question to your child should usually be: “Never mind about her– did you get what you need?”
5. Let them get away with undermining you a little–if it’s to help each other.
I remember a moment when I caught my toddler daughter slipping her preschool brother a bit of the dessert he had lost the privilege to get. Did I stop her? Nope–I turned a blind eye to it. The lesson they were learning–that they can count on each other in a (sugary) crisis–was more important than the lesson I was teaching about table manners. Now that they are teenagers, it delights me to see how this bond between them perseveres.
6. Respect their right to personal space.
It’s definitely important for siblings to learn to share, but kids need to have some boundaries respected, too–especially when it comes to friends. If you arrange a lunch date with a girlfriend, do you necessarily want her sister to tag along? What if your husband insists on being present? Kids feel the same way. It’s good to show respect for what’s important to a child–a special toy, one-on-one time with a friend, time to play alone without being pestered. If a child knows their reasonable requests for space will be respected, it’s easier for them to be generous with siblings.
7. Teach them to say both “I’m sorry” and “It’s okay.”
Just about every kid is taught to apologize, but teach your child to accept an apology, too. Learning to let go of hard feelings is its own skill–one even adults struggle to master.