'Siblings' photo (c) 2004, Clemens v. Vogelsang - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

What impact do you think siblings have on us? I think this will be a two-part post, since I have a lot to say on the subject, but as an only child I’ve always thought a lot about siblings.

I would have liked to have had some, but my father left my mother when I was still really young, so that didn’t happen. Instead I grew up alone. I was very close to my cousins, who were also girls, but cousins, as much as you love them, are different from sisters and brothers. I didn’t believe that then, but I do now as I watch my own girls grow up with each other.

Rebecca, my oldest, made me watch the funniest video from America’s Funniest Home Videos on YouTube the other day. In it, a mom announces to her about 5-year-old daughter and about 3-year-old son that the baby she’s carrying is a girl. The boy is devastated, and declares that he will never “pway wif the baby in Mommy’s tummy that’s a girl.” Then he throws himself on the floor and starts howling.

We laugh at it, but honestly, for that child it probably was a tragedy. I’m sure he will love his sister, and his sister will love him, but if it had been a boy, he would have had his best friend for life.

Having siblings that are the same gender is special, I think. When I was pregnant with Rebecca we didn’t find out the sex, because we wanted to be surprised. With Katie we did, because we had just had our son who had died, and I so wanted another boy. I didn’t want to be disappointed at the birth, so I thought if it were a girl, I wanted to know ahead of time so I could deal with it, put it behind me, and welcome her properly when the time came. And I did.

But looking back, I realize that having a girl was absolutely the best thing. I can’t picture anything different. My two girls really are close friends, and they do things together that they couldn’t do with a brother.

I am not saying that opposite-gender children can’t be friends; I totally believe they can be, and especially as adults, opposite-gender children can often become closer than same-gender children. But as kids, having that same sex sibling is special.

It’s strange, but in my family it’s all same sex. My mother was one of three girls. My cousins are both girls. My husband is one of four boys. And looking at those families shows me, too, that just because you’re the same sex is no guarantee that you will be close friends. Some are, some aren’t. So much depends on personality.

But I think it also depends on other factors, like age difference, and parenting. And it’s the parenting I want to talk about now. Having a sibling who is a best friend is such a blessing in your life, one that I wish I had. They have followed you through your whole life. They know you as well as anyone else. They will be there for your trials and tribulations, even if you live on opposite sides of the country. I remember when my mother was 42 and was diagnosed with breast cancer. They had her in surgery within 3 days (it was a very large lump). And both her sisters were by her side, even though they lived far away, and one required a very long plane ride. They may only see each other once or twice a year, but when it came down to it, they were there.

Siblings are important. But when they’re 4 and 6 and they’re bickering, or even worse, when they’re 10 and 12 and picking at each other (for that preteen age is often the worst), what do you do? What are your ground rules?

We never allowed our kids to fight. If they did, someone, if not both, landed in trouble. We didn’t require that they always play with each other, but we did want them to spend some time together. If the oldest needed a break from the youngest, though, we let her, even if that caused tears for the youngest. When you are encouraging a relationship, it’s important to remember that occasional fights do not mean the relationship isn’t strong. They’re kids, trying to figure out their own identity and form some independence. That means they will naturally squabble. That doesn’t mean that we naturally have to put up with it, but don’t take it personally and break down if your kids don’t get along. It isn’t necessarily a reflection of you.

I’ve also noticed that there are often years when they have gotten along well, followed by a year of frequent squabbles, followed by a year of peace. It has its ebbs and flows. For us, the year after Rebecca had hit puberty but before Katie had were awful. Katie was still a little girl and Becca wasn’t. They didn’t have as much in common, but Katie couldn’t see it, and felt that Becca had betrayed her. Similarly, I remember the year after Becca learned to read as being a difficult one. She had passed a milestone in maturity that Katie hadn’t reached yet, and they often bickered then. But with time, such things do pass.

To try to keep them together, even in the rough times, we tended to buy games and toys they could do together, rather than things you do alone (like iPods or TV). We encouraged imagination games. We let them take the pillows off of the couch to make forts (as long as they put them back). We didn’t put them in a lot of lessons, so they did have time together to play and get to know each other. When they had friends over, we often invited kids of a variety of ages so they could all play together.

It takes a lot of work, and sometimes it’s easier just to separate them, or let them put a TV in their bedrooms so they don’t have to hang out with each other. I think, though, that encouraging that friendship is important. Whenever my children fight, I always tell them, “Rebecca is the best friend you will ever have, Katie. Don’t ever forget that.” And I mean it. And I think, deep down, they believe it, too.

What about you? What are your experiences with siblings? How can you foster friendship among kids who don’t necessarily get along? I’d love to hear! Leave a comment!