#6 Minimize sibling rivalry. One of the values in our home when the kids were young was to go beyond just teaching our children to “get along”. We wanted to stretch them to the next level of actually enjoying and being an encouragement to each other. We did this through a variety of approaches; all designed to take the offensive in minimizing sibling rivalry.
First, we emphasized generosity over fairness in our home. We wore out the Quigley Village VCR tape of the parable of the landowner who hired laborers at different times of the day and then paid them each the same amount. The parable ends with the landowner saying, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). This emphasis on generosity over fairness took the wind out of so many situations where kids are apt to complain, “That’s not fair!”
Now, of course, we were not arbitrary or willy-nilly about dealing out privileges. At least once a Christmas season we spent a late night with all the children’s gifts laid out on the bed asking each other, “Do things look equal?” But at the same time, we had many situations that required flexibility. And because we were not locked into a fairness mindset these issues could be addressed with what was appropriate at the moment. For example, all of our kids did not receive their driver’s license on their sixteenth birthday as there were many individual aspects of that decision that came into play each time it was approached.
This emphasis on generosity over fairness removed some of the natural drivers that promote sibling rivalry. But don’t forget the generosity piece. It is the practice of generosity in our homes that makes our child’s natural concern about fairness diminish in importance.
Another thing we did to attack arguing or strife among our kids was a money exchange. Each child had a cup of coins ranging from quarters for the oldest to nickels for the youngest. When some argument between the kids escalated to complaining to Mom, she calmly listened. Then, because most cases don’t have a clear guilty party, she asked them to exchange coins from their cups. This put the larger incentive on the older child to resolve their differences which makes sense since they are expected to be the more mature sibling. It also fit the idea we have written about here of the older children being the pacesetter for the younger.
The goal here is the life long potential of siblings appreciating each other. And what evolved out of these efforts and God’s blessing was true friendship between our children. When it comes to sibling rivalry, the bottom line for us was to be forward thinking and find creative ways to stop it early. Being on top of the sibling rivalry challenges in your home does not mean being the rivalry cop who comes down on every situation. In fact, as you can see from the money exchange, we encouraged our kids to resolve their differences without us policing every issue. By God’s gift, the result for us has been a “rare and beautiful treasure” of family friendship.
#5 Nip the self-criticism. Words have power, even our own words to ourselves. And it is important to teach our children not to talk poorly about themselves. But wait a minute. Don’t we also want to instill a little humility into our kids? We don’t want them thinking too highly of themselves, do we? Welcome to the balancing act called parenting.
Yes, we want to teach humility to our children. And this is where – by knowing your child – you know which extreme they tend toward. But remember, humility is not a talented person thinking themselves unskilled, or a smart person thinking themselves foolish, or any other way we depreciate what God has given us. It is a false humility to deny God’s good gifts to us. True humility is not taking credit for these talents and gifts. True humility is not thinking ourselves inherently better than those around us. True humility is recognizing that all we have is a gift from God, not a product of any superiority on our part.
Our concern here is the Eeyore personality who wakes up in the morning focused on the negative including themselves. We must encourage cheerfulness, gratitude, and a healthy self-image. And one of the ways we build these qualities is to discourage negative self-talk. We also help that process along in our dinnertime chats by pointing out the positives we see in our children in front of the whole family.
Does this approach immediately change their personality? No, but seeing themselves as God’s “good design” sets the stage for receiving His affirming messages for the rest of their lives.
#4 Give everyone an opportunity to speak. It is natural for the conversation at your house to be dominated by the talkative types. Depending on the age range and personality of your children, it may take a purposeful effort on your part to get everyone in on the discussion. Children need to know that their thoughts are a contribution and be encouraged to join in.
One of the ways we drew our children into the dialogue at our house was to ask specific questions around the dinner table. One of our favorites was, “What was the high point of your day?” Or, “What was the low point of your day?” These conversation starters were a direct window into the hearts of our children. We often took time at dinner for all the kids to share their highs and lows, but we also had the flexibility to focus on one child if the seriousness of what they shared warranted a longer discussion. This approach also encouraged siblings to respond to these ups and downs in ways that lifted up their brother or sister.
Another opportunity to join the conversation was when we read the Bible together in the evenings before bed. One year, we read selected chapters in the Old and New Testaments to get an overview of Scripture’s message. When we finished reading the chapter, we would ask, “How would you summarize this chapter in ten words or less?” Sometimes we opened the question to the whole family and sometimes we asked it of one child that we knew needed to be heard. Our family worship time became a time of discovery around God’s Word, not just a lecture from Dad.
Giving everyone an opportunity to speak; it opens a door to understand, pray with, and teach your children.
#3 Give your children choices. Children are empowered by the opportunity to choose. Children are affirmed by the choices we give them. And the power to choose often eliminates those showdowns over what really start as insignificant issues. For example, Junior says he does not want to get dressed in the morning. After some prodding from Mom, Junior digs in his heels and the ensuing meltdown has us chasing Junior around the house in his diaper. Why is he laughing when I am about to boil over? Or what about the other end of the day when Junior announces he does not want to take his bath and you find yourself trying to pry a three-year-old’s fingers off of the bathroom door jamb?
We have found that these encounters can be minimized by giving kids choices. We ask Junior before announcing it is time to get dressed, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt today?” Before getting into the tub, we suggest, “What bath time toy do you want to bring with you into the tub?” Distracted by the power to choose, they move forward to the task at hand.
And these choices are not just for little kids. We found increased cooperation in the kitchen when we assigned one night a week for one of the kids to help Mom prepare dinner with the understanding that they could choose the meal. Or we took turns letting our kids decide what game we were going to play for our family evening together. Cooperation increases when children experience the power to choose.
Now on the surface, some parents may object to this approach as a diversion tactic instead of tackling obedience / disobedience issues straight on. Not to worry. There are plenty of opportunities, if we are paying attention, to discipline and teach over willful disobedience throughout their growing up and we need to stand strong when necessary. But we have found the peace, security, and joy level go up when we don’t take every issue to the level of a confrontation. Diversion at the appropriate time is not a cop-out. It is finding the balance between love and control in our homes. Remember, we (the adults) have the wisdom and observation from our mature point of reference on our side.
Think about the power to choose in our adult world. Many of us have worked for companies whose attitude was, “You should feel lucky to have a job here. The economy is not doing too well. We can treat you poorly because you really have no other choice of where to work.” Contrast that with, “We know you are a top-notch accountant. There are twenty companies you could be working for. We want to have you here. We know you have choices and we want this to the company of choice for quality people like you.” Which company will have the most enthusiastic employees?
It is the same way with children. They are affirmed by having choices. This does not mean we coddle our kids, cater to our kids, or spoil our kids. By nature of having little ones in the house, your home is child-focused. Or at least it needs to be. But it is not child-centered. There is a difference. And giving children appropriate choices in one of the ways we affirm and empower our kids.
#2 Be sensitive to your child’s thoughts and feelings. How many times have you tried to enter a conversation and were abruptly ignored or passed over as if you weren’t even there? How did it make you feel? Hurt or insignificant with nothing to contribute? A steady diet of this would clearly influence our opinion of ourselves.
It is the same way with kids. And in a busy household of overbooked schedules and homework and meals to prepare, it takes an intentional effort to take the time required to treat your child’s thoughts and feelings with respect. Remember, the long term goal is to build a relationship.
Our children feel validated as a person when their thoughts and opinions are heard by the ones they desire to please the most; their parents. A child’s view of himself, especially in the early years, is largely dependent on how he thinks you, his parents, really feel about him. No matter how many words of affirmation we say – and we should say them often – our sensitive response to our kids will be the loudest voice speaking to their hearts.
One of the easiest things to say to a child when they express fear, sadness, or disappointment is, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” We think we are teaching them to be tough or to grow up, but this dismissive response from us is really saying, “I don’t want to hear about your feelings.” A child cannot help how they feel. The feelings just come natural to them. They can’t control how they feel. The only thing they can control is how they respond to their feelings. And when we listen graciously to their thoughts and feelings, we open the door to the teaching moments of instructing them how to respond to those feelings in ways that are God-pleasing.
A lot of frustration in our children’s lives can be avoided if we take time to listen. When we see the illogic in their little minds, there is such a strong temptation in our adult minds to immediately correct their thoughts and feelings. And while over time we need to teach and correct, we need to balance that responsibility with a sensitivity to what is going on in their child mind and heart. When we find that balance, the reward at the end of the day will be “rare and beautiful treasures.”