Helping Your Children Get Along

A reader writes with an excellent question concerning helping our children get along:

“I was hoping you could do a posting on how to encourage little children to get along together. I have three boys, and another one coming, and there are days when I feel like a referee all day!…How do mothers cultivate patience with younger siblings and the desire to be with and teach and enjoy younger siblings, when baby brother is always “messing things up” for big brothers?? And how much do we “protect” big brothers from baby’s interruption?(ie put up baby gate to keep baby separate).

There are some basic premises I think need to be established before even talking about sibling relationships. We hold two truths regarding sibling strife:

Sibling strife is natural; sibling strife is not acceptable.

Natural meaning, it happens.  We all gravitate toward selfishness if we are left to “do what comes natural” and that breeds strife.  There isn’t a family exempt.  We expect it in our children.  But it’s not acceptable meaning what comes natural is not our measure of behavior.  The Word of God is our standard.  What we expect will happen is not what we allow.

Here’s the trick:  there’s a wide and often harrowing gap between where we are and where we want to be. Motherhood is not for the faint of heart.  If you answer the call to mother the children God has given you, there’s no way around rolling up your sleeves and getting ready to get dirty.

Here’s our starting point:

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” Phillipians 2:3

Contained in this verse is the essence of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  This verse (and there are others) should be a common, household mantra.  It is so important that in training our children to get along we point to the reason:  Because God said so. If it’s just because “y’all are driving me crazy” (yes, I say this sometimes) or because we want other people to admire our parenting skills or any other reason, we have missed it.

We also have to remember the two dynamics working together:  we trust God to do a work in the hearts while we work on cultivating habits to meet the work.

And cultivating habits is a continuous work.  It helps me not to get discouraged when I remember that training children is an ongoing process.  We can’t address an issue and expect to solve it and move on.  Over time, yes, we expect growth.  But the cultivating is daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, while we prune, weed and fertilize the soil.

In esteeming others we expect acts of selflessness, kindness in tones, self-control and flexibility, and a general striving for peace.  Get it settled–this is life work.

Especially where there are little ones, consideration must be given to them and the older siblings involved in disputes.  This can get very hazy as we try to figure out the right way to deal with conflict.  The little ones need to learn that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them, and the older ones need to learn to set the example of “esteeming others better”, which involves more patience toward a younger sibling.

Enforce.  If younger ones are too young to comprehend lessons in sharing, etc., is has to be physically enforced.  Very young children do understand  “no” and “wait” and should not be allowed to take things from others or destroy what others are doing, etc.  A negative command accompanied by a distraction may be all that’s in order.  Discipline in cases of obvious disobedience.

Teach the tools.  Even as early as around the age of 1, it’s important to give them appropriate responses and tools.  For example, if they want the toy that an older sibling has, I might say to them, “No, you must wait.  Ask (sibling’s name) “When you get done may I have it?” And then instruct the older one to help by agreeing to give the coveted toy in a reasonable time.  Though it’s more time-consuming, the earlier a child can learn patience and sharing, the better.

Employ the older children.  I talk often to my older ones about the importance of helping me teach the younger ones by example.  Helping them see that they can be an example of what God asks adds to their feeling valuable in the family.  I remind my older ones often of how they are either a good example or bad example to their younger siblings.

Remove the object. Instead of constantly refereeing every encounter, which can be exhausting, a better way to teach them to handle their own conflicts is to remove the object of strife, no questions asked.  Once they learn the results of strife or coming to Mom with every problem, they’ll naturally try to solve things and even be more willing to yield in order to avoid losing a desired item.

Don’t allow crying over toys.  We deal a lot with this with a 2, 3 and 5 year old.  Children learn early that crying gets mom’s attention and often gets them what they want.  It’s tempting, isn’t it, just to do whatever will make it stop?  I’ve tried to pay attention closely and never give a child what he wants if he’s crying or whining for it.  I simply tell him that since he’s crying he doesn’t get it at all right now.  “Come back later when you’re cheerful and ask me and I might be able to help you.”

Make them answer. Get into the habit of asking, “Are you loving your sister right now?”…”Is that the way you want to be treated?”…”Is that how God says we should treat each other?”…”Are you putting others first?” It’s that reminder of why we expect the behavior we do.

Work. I find it positively effective to react to strife by handing out jobs.  Not only is it a negative consequence that they’ll try to avoid in the future, but it removes the source (self) and puts them in serving mode.  Tailoring the work can be even more effective.  Having one child make another’s bed, etc., or having them work together.

Keep them close. One lady writes about “staking tomatoes”, comparing it to training children.  She suggests that it’s difficult to catch and therefore “bend” children in the right direction unless you are physically near them to see and hear what is going on.  This can be challenging, especially if you have several children.  But I think it’s very helpful if you detect a specific problem with a child or two, to keep them close in a “boot camp” type of training for a week or so.

With older ones…in extreme cases, we have eliminated all contacts with  other friends or social activites and claimed “no friends until you’re friends”.  It’s just that important.  A friend of mine also made her oldest boy and girl stand beside each other at every social event (church, etc.) until they agreed to be friends.

Duct tape. As a last resort, if you have two squabbling continually, you could duct tape their arms together.  It’s so bizarre, especially if you do it very calmly, that it completely disorients their thoughts and they totally forget about the strife.  They find it absolutely hilarious by the time they see you’re serious.  I’m only barely joking.  I think I may have done this once.

When they do it right…

This is big.  The biggest thing, in my opinion.  Look hard for the right behavior. And then go crazy.  Make a big deal about it.  And instead of saying, “I’m so glad you’re finally being nice!” instead say, “THIS IS IT!  Did you just hear yourself?   You just loved others more than yourself.  That is exactly what the Bible says to do and you did it!” (Very animated, of course.)  “I am so proud of you and I’m proud of the woman/man of God you’re becoming.  See what it feels like to make peace?”

Reward the peacemakers.  And keep at the task of building loving relationships.  This is a magnanimous work.  To build a home full of love and deference where siblings treat each other as friends is no small thing.  It’s also no easy thing.  The relationships built in your home will under gird every other relationship in their lives.  It will affect what kind of spouse they become, employee, neighbor, friend, and ultimately to teach a child to esteem others better than himself will bring him the only true contentment.

One of my favorite speeches:

“You know what?  I love you guys so much.  Too much to allow you to tear each other down and disobey the Lord in your relationships.  I’ll do whatever it takes to help you show each other love.  It’s not enough to say it.”

It’s worth the work.  “Let your light so shine before men’…the light of love being cultivated in a home where He reigns supreme and we don’t accept any standard but His.


21 Responses to “Helping Your Children Get Along”

  1. Angela says:

    Wow, there is a lot of wisdom in this post.

  2. Kim M says:

    Very helpful post! It is very hard sometimes to know how to handle sibling disputes, so I appreciate this post. I like the duct tape idea. I have also told my husband that it would be tempting to buy/invent some type of electric shock zapper with a convenient little button to zap them when they argue!!!! 😀

  3. shanie says:

    i had to laugh at the duct tape thing… sometimes a completely unconventional response is the best…

  4. M. Devine says:

    I have problems with teenagers and 1&3 year olds fighting. The teenagers believe they should already know everything like them.Huh?

  5. Chelsey says:

    Ok, I am printing this one out and posting it in EVERY room of my home. Awesome words of wisdom Kelly!!! Thank you, thank you, says the mom of six and four of them boys!

  6. Diane says:

    Great post! Absolutely fabulous! I have used the limiting social contacts and serving each other to great effect with my own children- and here’s my own version of the duct tape thang: when two kids are just at each other, i make them stand toe-to-toe, hold hands, look into each others’ eyes and tell the other child things that they love and admire in each other. At first they hate it with a passion, and you get grunts and things like, “I like your shirt.” *rolls eyes* but eventually they come ’round and really start to express nice heartfelt things about their sibling. This never failed in ending with giggles and the two former “enemies” closer than ever.

    What a great teaching opportunity sibling “rivalry” is♥

  7. Liz says:

    Great post. I think it is also important for parents to make sure they are not setting up strife between their children. I personally know a few families who seem to pit their children against each other. Examples, favoritism, scapegoating one child, or sharing personal business about one child to another child. Very sad.
    My oldest is disabled and my youngest really has a servant’s heart with him, without me asking, he just kind of “picked it up” that his brother needs extra help. Although that makes me very happy, I am saddened because my oldest sometimes seems to expect to be served; I want him to learn to serve others as well.
    Very nice post, Kelly!

  8. Charity says:

    I have found that this is one area that God is using in my life to cultivate patience in me. I can’t help but look at my two little girls arguing over a plastic doll and think “ugh, we just dealt with this yesterday!” (and be glad that my third child is too young to argue or care if something is taken from him 😉 It is definitely an on going process.

    Thank you for your helpful post.
    Blessings…

  9. Kelly L says:

    Although I have one, this is a great post for me too. Our girl is so nice, so often, I forget to praise her. Thanks for the reminder for praising AND doing it right…according to God’s word. Awesome.

  10. Civilla says:

    Great post, Kelly, and excellent responses. Our 2 boys, 2 years apart, naturally had that sibling rivalry. We tried never to show favoritism. We would also stress, when they did not get along, that friends come and go, but your brother is the best friend you will ever have, because family is lasting. By the time they were in Jr. High, they would from time to time declare a day to be “Brother Day” and the one being honored by the other would get to have the say as to what games they played, etc. (I’m going to play what J wants, because it’s “Brother Day.”) So, making them treat each other right will pay off. Now that they are grown, they are the best of friends and call each other on the phone often. They are proud of each other. It is important to have them be proud of their siblings’ victories.

  11. wannabegodly says:

    These wise words are so needed in our home lately as I see that I have slacked off in some training areas with some of the children. Thank you for letting God use you to be a good reminder & encourager!

  12. Linnie Lues says:

    Wow! Thank you Kelly!
    This is soooo helpful. My eldest is 15years old and we expect baby #8 in a day or two. I’m currently so tired and full of hormones, it is very difficult to train the 4 young ones, six years and under, to get along. I think I will print your posting and put it somewhere where I can read it a few times a day.
    Blessings

  13. paisley says:

    Wonderful insights. I have tried most. Need to be more consistent. 🙂 I especially like what you said about our reasons for wanting the kids to get along – Because God said so.
    I actually did duct tape my then 8 and 5 year olds together once. Unfortunately, the 5 year old needed the bathroom. Once she got her pants down, the 8 year old dragged her outside, just in time to meet my friend who had come over unexpectedly. Oops! It became clear that the 8 yo was needing correction the most – so I tomato staked him for several days and had him do all the 5 yo’s chores. All that to say, if you do tape them together, be sure to keep an eye on them at all times.

  14. Margaret says:

    Great post Kelly! We’re working on this right now. I am looking at the long term and I *so* want my boys to be the best of friends when they are older. So I have to put in the effort now.

    Definitely the most effective thing when they’re fighting over an object is to take it away. Ah, sweet quietness! lol Our house rule is, if you fight over it, you both lose, and I don’t care who started it. It really has worked very well, encouraging them to play *together* and share without arguments.

  15. Carmen says:

    Great post! I have a unique situation. My mom lives with us and it’s a very regular occasion that she argues with 2 of our girls (age 11 and 5). She seems to genuinely not like them. It’s a constant source of frustration to me in that my goal is harmony and servant’s hearts amongst family members. She just doesn’t seem to get it. Her parents were horrible; non-christian, mean, and verbally abusive. I understand why my mom acts the way she does at times but it’s not an excuse. It’s just plain crazy…I often feel like I have 8 children. Please pray for us!

  16. Joanna says:

    There are definitely some things in here I found helpful as I’m dealing with two of the same age. I’ve found, also, that if there is a lot of conflict, the first thing I need to look at is myself. Am I spending enough one-on-one time with each of them, giving them active attention? Am I getting impatient or frustrated with them as I deal with them? Many times I can resolve the situation gently just through giving them my full attention.

    I know it wasn’t a main point, but an alarm bell sounded in my head with the mention of duct tape. I just had a conversation last week with a friend studying child advocacy, and cases of children dying because of the misuse of duct tape were brought up. If you google duct tape and children, you’ll see both many children who have been severely hurt or have died through the use of duct tape, as well as parents who have lost custody of their children through its use.

    I know you were half-joking in your comment, but you have a large readership, and you don’t know who they might be, their backgrounds and so forth, and how they might take your suggestions. I can see so many potentials for danger–one child falling down and trapping the other, torn or irritated skin, and many other potential dangers. Please be careful, ladies!!!

  17. Kim M says:

    Yeah and please don’t take my zapping comment seriously either. It was a joke too.

  18. Alisha says:

    Thank you so much!

  19. […] Just because strife is normal, don’t allow it to be acceptable. […]

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