Experts Agree: Teach Your Kids to Get Along

This series on sibling relationships has been intentionally personal. We have enjoyed sharing our struggles and trials — and making some fun of each other along the way. A couple of my kids will be finishing up the series early next week, but today I want to deviate from family illustrations and stories to collaborated research about sibling relationships.

The reality is that siblings usually have the longest-lasting relationships in a person’s life. For example, my father died when I was 22 and my mother when I was 46. I have been married for 39 years and became a mother 34 years ago. However, I have been a sibling all of my 58 years.

Preparing for and writing this series (along with my kids) prompted me to do some secular research on this topic. Honestly, I didn’t know what I would find. But my research turned up some interesting stuff that has been confirmed in my own family:

  • The influence of parents is certainly weighty; but sibling influence is more significant than researchers anticipated.  Interestingly, also high on the influence list in the life of a young child are the friends of their older siblings. One researcher explained the possible reason for this: siblings and their friends are “closer to the social environments” of kids. Younger siblings, therefore, view older siblings and their buddies as cooler; therefore, they frequently imitate their actions and embrace their values over those of uncool or out of touch parents.
  • Undesirable behaviors are statistically learned more from siblings than from parents or other older adults. Things like smoking, alcohol consumption, criminal acts and sex outside marriage make a greater impression on kids when performed by siblings than by parents. For example, children may react to the negative consequences of parents who smoke or cheat by making a firm decision to avoid this behavior. However, when siblings engage in these things, younger brothers are sisters are far more likely to follow their negative example.
  • Children who grow up with siblings, especially those close in age, “may not need to [spend as much time with peers] because they are already having significant social experiences within the family unit.” This can help dispel the pressure parents feel to socialize their children (especially at young ages) with peers on a weekly or daily basis to be properly socialized.
  • I love this one (especially since two of my kids who have written posts emphasized having to reconcile and ask forgiveness growing up). Research indicates that siblings bicker or “squabble” between 6 and 10 times an hour (see, your family isn’t unusual!). This, experts say, “can help kids make developmental strides in a ‘safe relationship’ and provide good training for interacting with peers….”  In short, sibling arguments and conflicts — when handled properly — can actually be a good thing! This reminds me of Ken Sande’s excellent book, The Peacemaker, which teaches that conflict is inevitable and can actually glorify God. (More on that tomorrow with a resource recommendation we used with our kids.)
  • Children who have close sibling relationships are likely to have healthy adult peer relationships (including with their spouse).
  • Parent-mediated conflict resolution between siblings can help children develop a pattern of appropriate disagreement later in life. There is agreement from a wide range of secular researchers that leaving kids to themselves to resolve conflicts is unwise because kids aren’t good self-teachers. What kid is going to instruct him or her self to say, “Wow. I shouldn’t have smacked you when you wouldn’t give me the toy. Please forgive me. Let’s try that again and I will ask you nicely.” Patient mediation involves instruction and leadership, leading to a proper resolution. Researchers discourage parents from jumping in and manipulating kids to resolve things quickly and robotically, using similar attitudes and behavior (anger, harshness, etc) that mimics the child’s wrong doing.

Even those who don’t have a Christian worldview and who don’t adhere to biblical principles for relationship management agree: sibling relationships are really important.

Warmth and closeness between kids — along with wisely mediated conflict resolution by parents — can not only create a gospel-saturated culture in our own homes but can also prepare our children for the harsh realities of navigating life in a sin-saturated world.

When your child bonks his brother on the head and says, “If you don’t gimme that I’ll never play with you again!” or your teen reacts to her sister with eye-rolling arrogance and slams the door in her face, we parents can react in several different ways. If you’re like me, the first impulse probably isn’t the best one. Reacting in anger, frustration, exasperation or resorting to lecturing isn’t going to help. After all, “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires” (James 1:20).

I love how my daughter, Jaime, responded to my granddaughters recently when biting and hair pulling happened between them. In describing her own relationship with her sister, Janelle, Jaime told Annie and Danae, “When I was your age I didn’t like Nelly. She drove Mama crazy and I wanted to bite her and pull her hair.” Rather than fuss or lecture (which Jaime would be the first to admit is sometimes her response) she decided to demonstrate the gospel to her girls. (You can read the full story here.)

The gospel says we are more like our kids than we are different than them. We sin. We get angry, frustrated, irritable and selfish. We bite with words instead of teeth. And when we were young we did all kinds of mean things to our siblings — in our hearts and probably through our behavior. Empathizing with our children’s temptations and struggles opens the door to grace. If Jaime had launched in to a self-righteous lecture, Annie and Danae would have politely listened and maybe even mechanically apologized to each other to end Mom’s tirade about them needing to be nice to each other. But learning that Mommy, too, wanted to bite and pull her sister’s hair “qualified” Jaime to patiently instruct and correct them.

So let’s rewind the tape of Annie and Danae’s angry interaction. Jaime walks into the room to hear what happened and explains that she, too, wanted to do the same things to Nellie. The rest of the conversation might go something like this:

“Girls, Mommy knows how hard it is to love your sister. Nellie and Mommy were mean to each other. We argued and said mean things. Nellie messed up my stuff and Mommy made Nellie believe I didn’t love her. But now we are best friends because Jesus helped us. You can only really love one another and not bite and pull each other’s hair with His help. Jesus died on the cross so He could forgive you of what you did to each other just now, and so He could help you to forgive your sister.”

I don’t know what Jaime did after she talked to Annie and Danae. Perhaps she took them aside, corrected them and then brought them back to the very place where the biting and hair pulling happened. Maybe she “recreated” the scene and walked them through a better way to respond when your sister won’t give you what you want — patiently asking for it then coming to ask Mommy for help if things don’t go well. Kids don’t just need to be corrected for wrong doing; they need to be shown how to do things right. (It’s that put off/put on principle in scripture.) And then encouraged every time they choose to respond patiently rather than react angrily.

But whatever she did was humble. Empathetic. Gospel-driven. Why? Because the gospel says we and our children are sinful, flawed, weak creatures in need of a Savior to help us treat each other the way He treats us. But we and they are also loved, cherished and empowered to do this because He died to make it possible.

(I’ve done too much research to cite everything here and I purposefully chose well-documented, secular studies of which these are a few: “Early Sibling Relationships Influence Adult Behavior” http://www.psychcentral.com; “US News and World Report Health”, July 31, 2009; “Positive Indicators of Sibling Relationship Quality”, University of Michigan, June 2003).
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