Sunday, June 17, 2012

Increasing The Sibling Bond: Creating Lifelong Friends

Having children who are each other's best
friend is often the hope of many parents. 
The other day I took my daughter to buy a replacement for a necklace she lost. She found one of those "Best Friends" necklaces where you give another person an identical necklace with a charm of half a heart and you wear the other half. 

She talked for a while about which of her girlfriends she should give the other half to. We discussed what it means to be a best friend and how she thought she could tell who her closest friend was. She was quiet for a while, thinking, and then she turned to me and said, "I'm going to give it to my brother. He really is my best friend".

I wish I could say that's what I expected from her. I actually was really moved by her gesture and when he agreed to wear it to school the next day I almost cried. From the day my children were born there is almost nothing I have worked harder at than creating an environment in which the two of them could grow up to be friends.

A few weeks ago I took part in a teleseminar about improving sibling relationships. During the conversation I brought up the fact that one of the areas that I feel is often glossed over when it comes to reducing the amount of sibling conflict is how important it is to work on the bond our children feel with each other.

My feeling is that children who have a strong sense of connection to each other are less likely to get into prolonged battles with each other. But even if they do fight (and they will), siblings who have a shared bond are more likely, and more willing, to resolve the matter quickly.

Parents tend to get very caught up in wanting effective tools for stopping the fighting when it's happening which, of course, I totally understand. If I had a magic answer that would instantly solve what I describe as my own my personal hell (being stuck in traffic on the freeway and my kids are screaming at each other in the back seat), I would certainly share it with you! 

Diffusing the conflict in the moment is often very necessary, but like so many other things that have to do with parenting in a positive and connected way, sometimes the reason that conflict comes up is complex. Thus, sometimes the solution is something that takes time and is built layer by layer.

Building a strong bond between our children can require many different methods. Two of the things I mentioned during the teleseminar that my readers have asked the most questions about is our use of Brag Books and The Kindness Tree. These are two simple methods we've been using over the years that I think have really made some difference in our children's relationship with each other.

The Kindness Tree

An early version of our kindness tree. It's since
morphed into an apple tree and
now an ice cream cone.
When our children were about two I made a large tree out of construction paper and hung it on a wall in our dining room. I bought two sets of leaves (different shapes, different colors) so that each child would have their own specific leaf.

We like having the tree in a public part of our house so that it can be shown off to visitors, remarked on when we walk by it, and read from when the children are near by.

The purpose of the tree is to have a visual representation of your children's kind acts toward each other and to emphasize that being kind to each other is something your family values. What you will be doing is "catching" your kids being kind to each other, narrating the behavior and documenting it on a leaf.

Begin by telling your children the plan. Make it sound wonderful, enticing and exciting. 
"Mommy and Daddy decided that we should begin celebrating Kind Brother/Kind Sister Day with you! This is such a special day to celebrate how kind you are to each other and the way we do it is that every time you do something nice for each other, Mommy or Daddy will put a leaf on this tree! When the tree is all full, we will do something special together to celebrate!"
When your children are very little, the kind acts will probably look like "Sophia shared her red crayon with Alexis" or "Brady used gentle hands when he played with Jack". As you see the children behaving in a way that you would like to continue, narrate it and write it down on that child's particular leaf. I also like to include the date just for posterity's sake. 

Out for ice cream to celebrate
Kind Brother/Kind Sister Day
Decide how many leaves "fill" the tree (we gave each child 7 leaves) as well as what the celebration day will consist of. We've done different things like bringing lunch to daddy's office, going to their favorite toy store with a few dollars each to pick out a new toy, an outing to somewhere special we don't get to go to often. Whatever it is, just make sure there's a reminder that you're doing it because it's Kind Brother/Kind Sister day and the reason it's that day is because they've been so kind to each other over the last few weeks. I often bring the leaves with us so I can read them to the kids while we're doing whatever activity we've chosen for the day.

Now that we've been doing this for so many years, and because our kids are older, they come to me to tell me that the other has done something kind and he or she should get a leaf on the tree. The descriptions have gotten more complex and really show our children's personalities and the bond that they have developed over the years.

As I go through the piles and piles of leaves we've used over the last few years, it's a wonderful reminder of how my children behaved and who they were when they were little. And they love to look at them as see all the nice things they've done for each other and be reminded of how well they treated each other and how nice it actually is to have a sister or brother in their lives.

Sibling Brag Books

Although we include brags about their
accomplishments, we also try to focus on
who they are, not just what they do.
One of the cool thing about collecting the "Kindness Leaves" is that they are a wonderful addition to Sibling Brag Books. Many people make grandparents brag books that are filled with photos and certificates and complimentary notes about how awesome their grandchildren are. This is just a spin on that idea.

These books can be made in any way you like whether it's a complex scrap book or a simple photo album. The point of it is to fill each book with details about what makes each child special. 

Think about it. What makes your children feel good about themselves? What qualities are unique and wonderful about each of them? It doesn't have to just be the obvious...
  • "Your brother is so funny, he can always make daddy laugh" 
  • "Your sister was so scared of the big slide at the park, but she didn't give up until she was able to slide down by herself!" 
  • "Your brother works so hard in his Tae Kwon Do class. He's already a yellow belt!" 
  • "Your sister always knows just how to make you feel better when you're sad"
Whatever it is you want to highlight, in whatever way, add it into the book. Add photos, add cards, add memory trinkets. Then give each child's book to his or her sibling. If you have more than two children, it may be easiest to group them together into one book so that each child gets one book with all of their siblings (minus themselves) in one book. 

Me, working on an early version
of our first brag book.
Remember, this isn't a book to pump up your children's egos, it's a book to remind them of how wonderful their siblings are. So while you can focus on things like awards and accomplishments, you do want to be careful not to make it something they're going to compete over. Be thoughtful about what you include. If there are particular issues your children are sensitive about, be mindful about how or if you will include them. 

As your children get older, openly encourage and applaud the children's obvious differences, their different tastes, and the different choices they make. Praise the act of being different and thinking for yourself. Doing this allows your children to see the full range of what is wonderful and special about themselves and their siblings.

You may need to model for your children the point of these books: "That's YOUR sister who climbed the tree in our back yard!", "That's YOUR brother who built that huge LEGO tower!" so that they begin to understand that they can feel pride in their siblings' accomplishments, not just jealousy. 

Is That All There Is To It?

These methods alone won't make friends out of your children. In nature, animal siblings often fight or kill each other as a matter of survival. For children it can feel as though the love and attention of their parents is what is most needed for their survival. So it's not surprising that some children feel the need to compete so desperately with their siblings; on a very primal level it must feel as if there is life and death at stake.

I've written a few times about my general thoughts about sibling rivalry, including my posts on nurturing your children's individuality and one on one time both of which I think are essential in creating an atmosphere where siblings feel that there is enough love and attention to go around. In addition to that I think we as parents need to be conscious of allowing our children to express the full extent of their emotions. It can be really hard having a brother or sister. Acknowledge it. Let your kids tell you how they feel and empathize with them.

One of our favorite games to help the kids
learn to work together as a team.
Give your kids plenty of opportunities to do things together that will give them shared memories and a chance to work together as a team. In response to Lisa Sunbury's guest post on sibling conflict last week, I mentioned a board game we love called Busy Town. The main reason it's been such a hit here is that the children are working together to beat the board, as opposed to competing against each other. 

Let your kids "gang up" against the parents from time to time. We occasionally do "Sibling Night" where the kids get to make all the decisions for the evening. They have to work together to decide what's for dinner (usually pizza), where we'll eat (often a fort in the living room) and what mommy has to be during dinner time (a pirate, a mean witch, a fairy...whatever strikes their fancy). It's good practice for them to have to work together and it's fun for them to tell mommy what to a team.

These are just a few ideas of things we do in our home. I'd love to hear some of yours. And just so you don't get the wrong idea...our kids aren't madly in love with each other 24/7. They definitely have their share of fights and get terribly frustrated with each other. And I think that's perfectly healthy. But under it all, I do feel that there is a real love and respect for each other. And that is what I think will result in the two of them having a lifelong friendship. 
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