Siblings: Friends?

The scene has replayed so many times it feels like a loop playing out in our home: kids playing happily, one kid gets upset, whole scene unravels into fits and fighting and outrage; by bedtime all is forgiven and kids decide tonight is a perfect night to share a bed—yay snuggles!—with a cat thrown in for good measure and peacefully slumber the night away.  


It doesn’t always follow the exact same pattern—sometimes the morning starts with the fighting and the happy playing provides a respite later—but the theme of conflict/connection/conflict/connection is on steady repeat around here. And from the conversations I have with other parents, I can at least take some comfort in knowing my kids are not the only ones spewing verbal toxins at one another with some regularity. 


As a parent it can be shocking and upsetting to witness the altercations that happen between siblings. What, after all, is a parent to do? Just earlier this week I wrote about our role as models and examples for our children—are they fighting like that because of what they see in me? I can’t claim to be perfect in how I handle my anger, but I’m pretty sure my kids have never seen me slam a door or scream at someone at the top of my lungs. So what else could be going on? As much as I believe that learning to get along with and accommodate the needs of others starts in the family, it can be discouraging to walk the process by day and by season and see rancor and dissension too often taking precedence over love and deference. I confess that there have been times I’ve heard my children arguing and felt despair over the unrest.


And yet, I hold onto hope. Tell me if it’s like this in your family: I see lots of anger and meanness that my kids direct towards each other, but if I’m honest I also see an awful lot of love. The unkind words or the sharp tones make me cringe, but I can’t deny that there is also shared tenderness, joy, and camaraderie. The other morning Gabriel misplaced his gloves on a frigid morning before school. Amelia offered to let him borrow her extra pair, though they were purple. And Abigail offered to trade her gray gloves for Amelia’s purple ones, so Gabe wouldn’t feel silly wearing a color he didn’t want. That’s siblings caring for one another. 


Every time one of them says, “Wanna play in the basement?” with anticipation, that’s siblings coming together. Now I can choose to focus on the rancor that erupts when the invited party declines the invitation—and those unkind words said in haste do need to be addressed—but I am tunnel visioning myself into hopelessness if I only choose to notice when the rising volume indicates trouble. What about all the times the high volume is caused by uncontrollable giggles or shrieks of delight? When I recognize that those are happening too, and thankfully for us they happen often, I’m in a much healthier place to address the angst when it does present itself. 


I think it’s a lot to expect our kids to be friends all the time, though I find that’s a popular sentiment among parents. We have second and third children so the first ones won’t be lonely; we envision all the ways they will entertain each other, lean on each other, and stick up for each other as they grow. I’m no stranger to these sentiments—I absolutely want my kids to be friends, to be close, to have a lifelong bond of affection and love. But if I’m not careful I can put unreasonable expectations on my kids to conform in ways that may be stifling to them. My kids in particular, as triplets, spend an inordinate amount of time together. They share a home, a school bus, a classroom, and most things in between. Of course not all siblings have such close proximity all the time, but they still share a significant amount of physical and emotional space. Isn’t it important to allow our kids to navigate their sibling relationships with some of the same trial-and-error finessing that they get to practice with their friends and classmates? I remember fighting terribly with one of my brothers when we were kids in the same home. Many of my memories are characterized by frustration, anger, or annoyance. But as adults, we get along beautifully and my affection for him has only grown. I know not all troubled sibling relationships turn out this way, but I share this to suggest that sibling conflicts need not determine the course of a lifelong relationship. It helps me to keep this in mind when I’m gritting my teeth over another brewing argument. 


As a parent I want to instruct well, model well, discipline well and show grace well, but all that aside I still need to allow my kids to figure out for themselves what being a brother or sister will look like for them. If I continue to do my part, I trust they will grow into theirs. Seeing them snuggled under the covers together after a busy day of being kids is a great reminder of that.