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Navigating Sibling Rivalry: Investing in Your Children as Individuals

Traditions are great...but sometimes they can create unforeseen expectations among siblings.

For example, I've made it a habit to build certain "milestone" celebrations into my parenting with my kids. When my oldest turned 8-years-old we all went to Disney World to celebrate. As he turned 10, he and I took a bus trip to Chicago. At age 13, the two of us went out of the country on a mission trip.

His younger brother watched it all unfold, and eventually asked, "So when I turn each of those ages, I get to do the same things, right?"

"Of course," I nervously replied, while quickly realizing how much money I'd need to come across to duplicate every experience the same way.

How much of your parenting and mine is rooted in well-meaning intentions mixed in with a bit of guilt and obligation?

Then I realized that while each of these "rite of passages" I did with my older son were significant, they weren't meant to be duplicated down to the detail. The theme and purpose of each one mattered more than the specifics.

So I altered each trip a bit. In some instances, my second-born got things a little nicer than my firstborn. In other experiences, it was the other way around.

This kept my older teen from becoming a know-it-all about the experiences, and allowed my younger tween the chance to enjoy the fresh surprise of what I designed just for him to unfold without expectations.

Perhaps one way to avoid sibling rivalry is to tangibly recognize the uniqueness of each kid like this.

When they get a specific experience that was created just for them, what they really experience is your affection and an investment in their confidence. This leads to less jealousy and more enjoyment of how they're being incomparably celebrated.

You'll still need to address sibling rivalry, though.

There should be an overarching philosophy that starts with, “We're a family, and we're all unique, so let's uniquely help each other, support each other, and love each other.” Talk about what that means and model it, making sure your home is a safe place where everyone is appreciated.

Then, if and when sibling rivalry does happen, handle each situation appropriately:

  • Disagreements: Siblings can sometimes disagree over their perspective on something, and these are situations that you don't have to referee. Encourage them to sit down at a table without you and work out things that have become bigger than they should, like personal opinions about people, places, or things.
  • Constant bickering: Hold all of your kids responsible for how their small jabs at each other create a critical spirit around your home. Begin by explaining what specifically needs to stop, and ask them for input on what a solution to the situation is.
  • Name calling: Host a family meeting and ask everyone what words or names make them feel bad, and likewise what words or names make them feel good. Use the information to create a "do" and "don't" list for how they refer to each other. Add any phrases you want to each list, like "I hate you" or "I love you". Establish consequences to their name-calling they'll feel, like one parent who removed her teen's bedroom door to symbolize how others in the home felt vulnerable and exposed by that teen's name-calling.
  • Jealousy: Life isn't fair, and siblings will unfortunately learn this by watching each other get opportunities that they don't get. Be a role model by pointing out the bigger picture and valuing everyone's characteristics. And never hold up one child as the "standard" and compare siblings to them.
  • Family funk: There may be some things your teens are doing to each other because they're watching how you or your spouse do it.  Are you sending a message that it’s okay to make another person feel small, like summarizing others at the dinner table, or being petty about people you disagree with? If so, the change you want to see in your kids has to begin with you.

Be aware that the way you handle these situations can also become a tradition. Your home needs more than just blanket rules. It needs radical hospitality that uniquely adjusts to each situation and family member.


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