Labels Limit A Child

Recently I was asked to check out a new, award-winning parenting book called What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. This book is short and very easy to read, with many excellent examples and I love that it includes children’s book suggestions as a way to work through some of the thorniest issues.

After reading it, I was glad to see that the author, Sarah McLaughlin, and I were very much on the same page about many things including helping children express their emotions, alternatives to shaming children as a way to change their behavior and avoiding label children.

Sarah has very kindly offered a guest post on labeling which is excerpted and adapted from What Not To Say, as well as an opportunity to win a great giveaway!


Labels Limit A Child
Guest post by Sarah McLaughlin

Labels are so tempting. Using adjectives to define a child is a natural desire. And I have to admit I was much more tempted to label my own child than I ever was someone else’s—maybe it’s how well you get to know a child you actually live with—I just wanted to know and name everything about him! But be it stubborn or helpful, labeling ties a child to their behavior, perhaps inextricably.

When a child hears a word or phrase applied to him often enough, it “sticks” just like a name tag. This can change his self-image. Children tend to accept without question the labels adults use to describe their physical characteristics, personality, abilities, and limitations. Diane, often called Angel, tries to live up to her nickname and that might seem like a good thing. However, nicknames and labels pressure children to act a certain way instead of being themselves—sometimes well-behaved and kind and other times unruly and vindictive. Consider each parent’s language in the following scenarios…

James at twenty months is fearless on the toddler-oriented playground. His father barely takes his hands off him and James struggles for independence to scoot quickly around the nearest structure. As James climbs, Dad says, “Be careful son, this pirate ship is very high. You are such a wild boy. Watch your head! Good boy. Hold Daddy’s hand, please. Good boy. What a bold boy you are!”

Sophie is the same age. Her mother watches closely as the little girl negotiates the playground. Mom is careful to stay nearby, but doesn’t hover unnecessarily. She moves in if she sees Sophie traversing a drop-off point, or signaling for help. She also talks to her daughter: “Sophie, you are doing it all by yourself! Last week you asked for help in that spot. Reach . . . you did it. Your muscles are getting strong.”

The father’s verbal cues are warnings, labels, and praise. Sophie’s mother gives a different sort of feedback by narrating her daughter’s movements and comparing them to a previous playground trip. Both parents want to keep their children safe, but their words send different messages about each child’s capabilities. In turn, these words influence the child’s behavior. James picks up on Dad’s nervous hovering and may defy him in an unsafe way, or act more fearful. Sophie will likely increase her skill and self-confidence, in part because of Mom’s descriptions.

If a child is told he acts a certain way, he will tend to continue, even if the description is negative. Is it helpful to you, or a child, to joke about him being a slowpoke? We often use unflattering labels to differentiate children, saying things like, “He’s our little show-off,” or “She’s the troublemaker in this classroom.” Obviously adults don’t want to reinforce these behaviors, but what about the more subtle labels? For example, consider “tomboy,” an outdated stereotype for a girl who is athletic, or doesn’t fit old ideas about girlish behavior and clothes. When a word like this pigeonholes a young child, she may feel there is something wrong with her. You can comment in a nonjudgmental way on a girl’s or boy’s preferences: “Jenny loves to climb trees and play soccer. She’s very active.” Or, “Eddie likes quiet activities—playing with dolls and trucks and looking at picture books.”

The labeling phenomenon is much like downloaded information. When we are young, we hear certain things being said to and about us, and they are stored on our hard drives. As we get older, those old files may continue to show up on our screen—and they are terribly hard to delete. Remember that the descriptive labels we apply to children can affect them for a long time, maybe even a lifetime.

It is easy to be unaware of the impact of our descriptive words. Adults tend to use positive labels to encourage children in a variety of activities. This is an ideal opportunity to try narrating instead. Simply say what you see, and use your tone wisely. Words that help without limiting are best. As for negative labels, they are best avoided too—we all behave in undesirable ways from time to time. Being able to separate what they do, from who they are is imperative for a small child.

Increasing The Sibling Bond: Creating Lifelong Friends

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”.

best friendsI 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

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.

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

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.

taekwondoThink 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.

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.

games for siblingsGive 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 do…as 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.

Sibling Conflicts Solutions From Becky Eanes

Somewhere along my parenting journey I found a wonderful blog called Positive Parenting which was so full of great, straightforward advice that it caught my attention and I stayed and read article after article and followed post after post on her extremely popular Facebook page. I’ve learned a lot from Becky Eanes, the author of that blog.

One of the things I love about Becky is that she doesn’t hold herself up to be more of an expert than you or I. But she reads and researches a ton and is passionate about positive parenting. She’s terrifically smart and writes blog posts that offer great insight into many of our most difficult child raising issues. I was very excited that she agreed to take part in this guest post series and answer another reader question about sibling conflicts.

“I have B/G 18 mos. twins and I had a few questions. You mention the wrestling, especially for boys. Can you elaborate? They love climbing on Dad and he tolerates them sitting on him and jumping and ‘hitting’ but I don’t. How do you teach your kids to play nice and then allow for this kind of roughhousing?

I have started using a colorful egg timer for taking turns. Sometimes by the time the timer is done, the one who wanted the mop has moved onto something else. Do I follow through? When I do, the child who has the mop gets upset and it seems like if I had just continued to let them play, they would forget that they were fighting about it. But, I don’t want to break promises…

Also, there are a few times the kids are playing well by themselves and I try to say, “Good playing! I like how nicely you are playing!” And then the attention makes them ‘aware’ and they start fighting for the same toy! I had read that I should try and give as much positive encouragement in the times they are doing well alone but this sometimes back fires on me. Any advice?”

~ Jessica W.

Roughhousing has many benefits for children, both boys and girls. There is an entire chapter devoted to this in Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting. Here is an excerpt:

“Boys and girls – rambunctious children and quiet ones – all benefit from thoughtful physical play with adults. The active ones, who are going to be in the thick of the rough and tumble in school and on the playground, need a chance to do it first with someone who can give them undivided attention, help them deal with their fears, hesitations, impulses, anger, etc. That’s our job, because we won’t call them names if they cry or if they give up, and we will stop for a rest when the child needs one. Other children are not going to hold back very much, and they certainly are not going to encourage expression of feelings. Meanwhile, children who are less physically active need roughhousing with adults so they can explore their physical power and develop their confidence and assertiveness….[There is a] set of guidelines that help make wrestling the kind of play that brings closeness, confidence, and healing from emotional hurts. In other words, we are not talking about professional wrestling here.”

roughhouseHe goes on to discuss the basic rules of wrestling or roughhousing, which I will summarize:

1. Provide basic safety.

  • Set up ground rules to make sure nobody gets hurt. No hitting, no biting, no punching, no kicking, and no head locks. Besides being safer, pushing and holding are more helpful in building confidence and connection than hitting. Your commitment to no one getting hurt builds feelings of safety.
  • Don’t tease or humiliate the child.
  • Agree on a code word that means that everyone will stop immediately and always stop right away when someone uses the code word.
  • Children may need to be reminded about these ground rules many times. If safety permits, it is best to keep reminding them or holding them gently but firmly so they can’t hurt you, instead of stopping the play.
  • See if you can stay engaged, continuing to play while maintaining safety. This gives us a chance to help children who are impulsive or aggressive to gradually control these feelings.

2. Find every opportunity for connection.

Take cuddle breaks. Insert as much connection as possible, wherever possible.

3. Look for every opportunity to increase their confidence and sense of power.

Mostly this is done through giving the right level of resistance and encouraging them.

4. Use every opportunity to play through old hurts.

For example, if a child faced a difficult challenge earlier in the day and was not pleased with the outcome, she can replay it with you, with you representing the obstacle or bully or difficulty.

5. Provide just the right level of resistance for your child’s needs.

The goal is let them use their inner power fully in a way that does not hurt anyone. They need enough resistance to know you are there and to get a sense of themselves being powerful, but not so much that are overwhelmed or feel abliged to give up.

6. No tickling allowed.

No holding others down and tickling against their will. Tickling can be fun, but it can also feel to children as if things are out of control.

There are more, but I think those are the basic points. My husband does most of the roughhousing with my boys, and I occasionally join in as well. At this point, I don’t generally allow my boys to roughhouse each other because they get carried away. They’re 5 and 3, and my 3 year old is more aggressive, which usually causes my 5 year old to end up “losing” and “whining!” 🙂

As for your question, how do you teach them to play nice and allow for this kind of roughhousing, that is in the ground rules. Make it clear its about physical fun, not at attempt to cause injury. This helps them to build inner discipline.

Using a timer to take turns.

If you’re using the timer for taking turns and one child loses interest, let them continue on playing without interfering. There is really no need to follow through if the other child has lost interest in the toy or object. Timers can be useful for all sorts of things, but its important to also work with them on problem solving skills. Teach them how to negotiate with each other when they both want the same thing.

What about when siblings are playing nicely?

Positive attention is a good thing, but it can backfire when used at the wrong time, like you have discovered. If they are playing nicely together, there is no reason to always make mention of it, especially if you notice this causes them to become aware and start fighting. They’re supposed to play nice together, so, while you want them to know you acknowledge their efforts, you don’t want them to feel like they’re doing something over the top special, as though you expected them to fight and are so pleased that they’re not! Its best to let them enjoy playing together, and you can make mention of it later, such as at bath time. “You two were very kind to each other today. I appreciate how you cooperated with each other.”

Sibling Conflicts Solutions From Lisa Sunbury

After my teleseminar on improving sibling relationships the other week, I got quite a lot of emails from parents who wanted to dig deeper into their children’s behaviors. I thought it would be interesting and helpful to ask some of my favorite bloggers and parenting experts to offer their thoughts on a few of the questions that seemed to have some universal themes. My hope is that by answering publicly, that we can not only offer some helpful advice, but also show that those of us working through sibling conflict aren’t alone in our struggle.

The first question is being answered by Lisa Sunbury who has more than 20 years of experience teaching and caring for young children. She holds a masters degree in Early Childhood Education, was trained as a RIE associate by the founder of RIE, Magda Gerber, has worked for many years both as a nanny and an infant/toddler teacher and now also teaches RIE parent/infant education classes in Northern California where she lives. Additionally, Lisa writes the thoughtful and inspiring blog, Regarding Baby, through which she and I first got to know each other. I was thrilled when she agreed to answer the first reader question.

“I am a Nanny, and currently work with a family that has two young children, one is 5 (Michael), and the other one is 2.5 (Eric). I have noticed many subtle and intense behaviors between them, and hopefully, you can give me some directions. Here is a typical situation:

Eric picks up and plays with a toy that “used to” belong to Michael, and Michael will say “Hey, that’s mine. I want it back”, or “Eric, can I have that/have it back?” Eric would respond “No, it’s mine” Then there is “No. It’s mine” back and forth, till Michael takes it out of Eric’s hand, and 1) Eric cries, or 2) Michael takes it from Eric’s hand, and Eric bites Michael arm/head-butts Michael, or 3)Eric runs away from Michael, and starts a chase, then Eric throws the toy at Michael (sometimes, Michael dodges successfully, sometimes he fails).

The actual hitting and chasing usually happens when I am not in the same room with them–I would be in the kitchen cooking, or doing other house work. When I am in the same room with them as the conflict starts, I usually narrate “Eric is playing with xxx, and Michael wants it back”. They would both look at me, and one of them would say, “It’s mine” or “I want it” then I would say, “You both want the same toy, how can you work it out so you both have fun?”

That doesn’t seem to sink in since they would continue the tug-of-war until the physical force starts. I then either place my hand on the toy (if hitting has not occurred), and say, “How are you going to work this out?” This usually ends up with me putting the toy away after a few minutes of “But I want it/it’s mine/NO it’s mine”. If Eric is about to hit, or throw, I would block Eric’s head or hand, and say “I don’t want you hit your brother”. He usually cries after I say that, or he would attempt to hit me in the face. I block his hand and say, “I know you are xxx, but I won’t let you hit.”

I say the toy “used to” belong to Michael since he is the first born, and there are many many toys that were given to Michael before Eric was born, and now those toys are in the playroom. The parents’ rule is if a toy is in the playroom, it belongs to everyone. Who gets it first, gets to play. When Michael brings a toy given to him as a personal gift from his room to the playroom, I usually remind him that the rule is when a toy is brought to the playroom, everyone gets to play with it, and ask him if he is ready to share it with Eric. Sometimes he says yes, and sometimes, No. When he says no, I work through the scenario with him about handling his brother’s desire of wanting to play with his personal toy.

This might sound like I am talking to him out of it… I could only handle many conflicts a day. Sometimes, I just tell him straight and honest that I am not ready for another fight, and if he insists to bring the toy to the playroom, he will need to find a way to share (now, as I am writing this, I realized what you said on the call…. to replace the word “share” with “take turns”. Haha).

Another typical situation is they would do things to each other knowing that by doing so, the other person would react (or shall I say knowing that the grown-ups would react). Or when I am playing with Eric, Michael would interrupt by telling Eric what he should be doing, or correcting Eric’s play. When Eric ignores Michael, he takes away what Eric is playing with… and there goes the pattern….”

~ Hannah-Lee Davis

Lisa’s answer:

I’m also a nanny for a family who has two children with a similar difference in age between the children.The good news is this: the interactions you describe sound fairly typical and normal for siblings! The reason I say this is good news is because the boys are actually learning a lot about taking the viewpoint of another and being in relationship with each other through their struggles, even though it might not appear so to us as adults!

As their nanny, you are in an ideal position to support both children in their learning and growth by remaining neutral, and being on the side of the boys’ developing relationship, as opposed to taking one side or the other when they argue, or solving the dilemma of who gets the toy.

Try to envision yourself as a coach, as opposed to a referee. You want to trust the boys and support them to find a way to work out and solve their own differences as much as possible, while you hold the space for them to do so by stepping in when needed to ensure their emotional and physical safety. I have to say, it sounds like you are doing a great job of this!

I hold and express the expectation that the children I care for can and will work out solutions that they are happy with, and that don’t involve anyone getting hurt. I’d like to offer a few specific suggestions or thoughts for you to consider based on the scenarios you provided. Since you have noticed that the hitting and chasing usually happens when you’re not in the same room with the boys, this is an indication to me that they need the support of your presence and attention to help navigate their relationship in a more peaceful way, so I’d suggest some preventive measures :

1. When You Have To Be Otherwise Occupied.

sibling conflict

If you know you have to be occupied in the kitchen, tucking away toddler mattress, or with housework, you can either involve the boys in the tasks at hand, keeping them in sight, or suggest they play separately for a bit. Perhaps you can keep Eric with you, or set up a simple art project in the kitchen if you’re working there, or maybe the boys can play in separate rooms independently for a bit? If not, I would say something to them along the lines of, “I am going to be working in the kitchen if you need me. I trust you to play together here in the playroom, and to be gentle with each other.” Of course, I’d keep an ear out, and stop whatever I was doing to intervene if I heard a conflict escalating, but sometimes children can solve things better without an adult present!

2. What To Do When They Begin To Struggle With Each Other?

The way you are mediating the disputes sounds perfect, but when one of the boys turns to you, and says “It’s mine. I had it first”, or similar, I suggest calmly turning them back to each other: “I hear you saying you want the toy, but this is for the two of you to work out together. You can talk to your brother.” Stay with them for as long as it takes, and keep gently turning them back to each other, resisting the impulse to solve the problem for them. You might quietly remind them that the toys in the playroom are for everyone to play with, and empathize with the child who wants the toy but doesn’t have it, “It’s hard to wait for a turn when your brother has a toy you want to play with.” You might offer that it doesn’t appear that either boy is having very much fun, and that maybe it would be more enjoyable for them to find a way to solve their disagreement. The struggle is not a bad thing though, as long as no one is getting physically hurt or physically overpowering another. The more at peace you can feel with the struggle, the more helpful it will be to them. So breathe!

3. When The Kids Have Been Fighting All Day.

I think it is perfectly acceptable to be honest with both boys about your limits too. If there is a day when the conflict is constant, maybe everyone needs a break and some space, and as the adult, if you are feeling too tired, or just need a brief respite, by all means be honest about this. You may choose to ask the boys to play separately, or to put away toys that are causing conflict. (I might say something along the lines of, “Since it seems like you boys can’t decide how to play with this toy/game in a safe/gentle way, I’m going to ask you to put it away for today.”)

This language is neutral, and isn’t “blaming” one boy or the other, and it moves the conversation away from who had the toy first, who it belongs to, whose fault it is that someone is upset. The arguments the boys are having aren’t really over the toys or ownership anyway.The real questions and the bigger issues underlying the struggle are these:

  • How are the boys learning to be in relationship with each other?
  • How do they learn to negotiate alone and together time?
  • How do they learn to communicate, co-operate, and get along with each other in a mutually beneficial and enjoyable way without violence, and how do they work through conflict in a way that leaves everyone feeling heard and respected?

4. Respecting Boundaries.

I think the rule about “special or personal toys” is actually a good one, because it gives the boys some choices and power, and allows them to feel a sense of safety in knowing that certain things are their very own, and the boundaries will be respected. In the family I work with, each child has their own room, and this is their private space. They may play together and with each other’s special or personal toys in either room as long as the “owner’ of the room has invited the other in and they are both enjoying sharing the space and toys. They are both allowed to play in their rooms independently if they choose, and a closed door is respected, meaning no one enters without knocking.

With the two children I care for, it is harder for the three year old to understand when his big sister wants this quiet time, because he always wants to be near her and play with her, but I support her in setting the boundary: “I’d like to play by myself right now,” and help him to give her her space when she asks for it. “Your sister wants some time/space to herself, right now. She will join us later. How about finding something you’d like to do for awhile?”

Interestingly enough, the three year old has learned to enjoy this time to play with toys in the playroom that his sister sometimes monopolizes, and/or to enjoy some one on one time with me. If Michael wants to bring a special toy to the family playroom and the family rule is that all toys in the playroom are fair game, I’d simply remind him of the rule, and if he says he doesn’t anyone else to play with his toy, I’d respond, “That’s fine, but then I am going to ask you to keep the toy/play with the toy in your room.”

5. Our Behavior Shapes What They Learn.

Your insight about the reactions the boys have learned to expect from adults is quite astute, because children often do act in the way we teach them to through our modeling and responses to them. If they have learned that their disagreements get a lot of attention or big reactions from adults, or if they have learned to count on adults to step in and solve the problem for them, they will often oblige by continuing to act in ways they know get results!

When working with siblings I assume (as I do with all children) that each child is doing the best they can given their current level of development and understanding, and I try to model the behavior I want them to emulate. So, if you’re playing a game with Eric, and Michael comes along and interrupts, or tries to boss or correct his brother, I’d assume he wants to join the play, and invite him to do by saying something along the lines of “It sounds like you have a lot of good ideas for how to play. Would you like to join us?” If he joins, great. If he declines, I’d calmly ask him to refrain from “correcting” or interrupting his brother’s play. I often say, “Everyone has their own way of playing, and that’s Okay.”

6. Building Their Bond.

board gamesI also like to help build the relationship between siblings by finding and setting up activities and games that they can both enjoy together – each at their own level. For instance both the younger and the older boy can enjoy and contribute to games of block building, dance party, chase, hide and seek, scavenger hunts, sand box play, water play, play dough, chalk art, painting murals, building forts, and obstacle course. There are some card and board games that even the two and a half year old can play (if you’re on his team at first) like Zingo Bingo, I Spy, picture dominoes, concentration, and Jenga.

I also read story books to both children together that touch on themes of family, friendship, and feelings. One of my favorites is When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry . . . by Molly Bang. I tell stories to the older child (within hearing distance of the younger child) about “When you were two years old…” or we look at their baby books and pictures together, and tell stories about what’s happening in the pictures. I feel like this validates both children and helps the older one to understand the younger one’s point of view, through a biographical narrative. I empasize how much the older child has learned about being a good friend, and how much her brother is learning from watching her and listening to her. “If you grab toys from your brother, he learns that that is a good way to get a toy.” “When your brother hit you, it hurt and you cried.”

Sometimes, I will gently coach one or both of them…“What’s another way you could ask for a turn?”, “It sounds like you might both need to take a break to cool down.” If they are both upset and yelling, I sometimes ask them to each take a turn to say what they want to, but again, I encourage them to talk to each other, and not to me, and I act like the broadcaster. I also acknowledge times when they are enjoying each other, playing peacefully, or when either one shows kindness to the other. “I really like how you are helping each other/talking with each other/ playing and co-operating together.”

happy siblingsI hope some of these thoughts and ideas are helpful to you. Try to remember when you’re in the thick of it that the struggle is what ultimately brings the two together, and just keep supporting them to build their relationship by letting them work it out between themselves as much as possible.

The only way they can learn to negotiate conflict and to live together peacefully is by having ample opportunity to practice! There aren’t short cuts. We can’t will it, or do it for them as much as we’d like to at times. This is a gift you’re giving to them, and one that will serve them well in all of their relationships!