My children genuinely love one another. All of them.
For years I held my breath awaiting the dreaded sibling rivalry that was promised to me by grizzled veterans of the parenting wars. I watched, like a hawk, the children of other families and saw for myself the ways they picked, teased, argued and fought incessantly. My heart broke at the thought of such bitterness rearing up between my own children, especially as an only child who still has a sense of wonder at the mysteries held by siblings. I prayed fervently for the Lord to work in the hearts of my sons and daughters.
And I waited...
Until suddenly I realized I was already witnessing the beauty of my children's relationships filled with love and respect and I sighed with relief.
I'm certainly not foolish enough to believe that my children will never go through seasons of difficulty with one another. There are times when irritability, immaturity, and unrealistic expectations causes bickering. I can imagine that multiplied by problems bigger than whose turn it is to get the "good" truck in the latest installment of the make-as-much-noise-as-possible game. But that is a far cry from the splintered, anger driven actions of siblings with nothing but common parents holding them together.
So, how did we put ourselves on this course? I hesitate to give a set of rules that could mistakenly be thought of as a fail-safe because if there is anything at all the same about families it is that they are different. However, I do believe there are a few key principals my husband and I learned from the good and bad of our own families of origin.
Expect Affection. Children rise and fall to the level of expectation around them. When you expect them to love and cherish their younger sister, they will. Every time we bring a new baby home it is the same sense of wonderment, excitement, and joy. Children clamor to get their turn holding the baby. This natural awe easily quickens into love as the baby grows older and more sophisticated in its responses to the other kids. Sure, individual ages and genders may create a more seamless bond but there is something unique and necessary in the relationship between every person in your house. Treat it with respect and love. Our home's example: We underline again and again the importance of building one another up. To this end we do not allow coarse or crude joking that makes use of put downs or teasing.
Eavesdrop. Seriously. I am quite amazed at the number of parents who feel it is disrespectful to interfere in their children's affairs. Um, they're kids. You would never hesitate to teach the two-year old how to appropriately offer the new baby its pacifier so don't hesitate to teach the seven-year old how to appropriately offer their opinion. Children need to learn not just the motor skills of life but the emotional skills of life. Healthy relationships don't necessarily come naturally. This requires your input more than when it turns to blows. It must be proactive. Our home's example: I listen like crazy so that when a teaching moment occurs I can quickly take advantage of it.
Require Honest Apologies. When my husband and I argue it doesn't clear the air for one of us to simply throw our hands up and taunt, "Sorry!"If anything it simply adds fuel to a smoldering inferno. Honest, heartfelt apologies are the only things that get the job done. But how do you get them? We have found that doing two things helps tremendously. First, we work to set the offender in the offended's shoes and ask how they would feel if the tables were turned. Second, we teach our children from the beginning that a real apology is a specific one. Our children must clearly articulate what they are sorry for when they ask another child's forgiveness. Our home's example: Please forgive me for being mean when I tried to make the rules so you couldn't win. I was being selfish and it wasn't fair. I'm sorry that I hurt you.
Teach Reconciliation. Apologies are great and all, but if there is no reconciliation afterwards then you haven't won the battle. We all know that adult with a chip on his shoulder. It doesn't matter how real you are in your apology it won't do a bit a of good because he simply wants to be angry. When we are offended we wear our offense like a badge of honor showing the world that we've been hurt. Don't you dare try to pacify me. I've got my Wounded Ego button goin' on. We're simply children using bigger words. "Fine! Then I'll never play with you ever again as long as I live and even when I die I won't play with you! And you aren't coming to my birthday party!" But no bitterness. This won't get you far in healthy conflict resolution. We take gobs of time working through the honest apology so the wounded person feels heard and validated. But we also require the offended to choose grace and forgive. Holding a grudge is not an option. We often help our children come to a resolution by asking the offended what is their solution to the problem. Our home's example: I forgive you. I love you. I would like to play with the green truck by myself for a little bit but I would like to play with you after lunch.
Spend Time Together. Who are your good friends? Inevitably they are the people you spend or at least spent a great deal of time around. You don't become great friends with the person who lives across town but uses the same dry cleaners. Sure, you happen to bump into one another occasionally, but shared laundry just isn't enough. Of course I whole heartedly support friendships from outside the home. But I don't want those friendships to be a substitute for healthy relationships inside the home. And frankly, as children, I much prefer their closest friends be their brothers and sisters. After all, I know their parents and while they have some kooky ideas I can generally agree with their life paradigms. Also, I know if they get mean towards one of my babies I can expect honest apologies and healthy reconciliation. Our home's example: I homeschool. This provides the ideal environment to ensure that outside friendships remain secondary to inside ones.
Pray. Seek the Lord for wisdom in how exactly to manage your specific family's needs. He will provide it. (James 1:5)