Dear Dr. Debbie,
Was I completely off base thinking if we spaced our two children closely enough they would get along with each other? They competed for attention from me when they were little, fought over toys when they could both walk and talk, bickered about chores and what channel to watch through elementary school and now, as preteens seem to take every opportunity to irritate one another. Any suggestions?
Too Close for Comfort
Don’t miss last week’s column When your preschooler lies — Good Parenting
Dear Too Close,
There is no guarantee that two children in the same family will be great buddies but you can, however, set standards for civility.
A Forum for Conflict
Now is as good a time as any to employ the strategy of a weekly family meeting. The end of dinnertime makes a good setting for airing concerns and grievances, as well as for sharing good news and making plans together. Be sure to set a tone of mutual respect for acknowledging feelings and assuring there is agreement to items on the family calendar as well as to solutions to any problems.
The adults can have a pre-meeting to be sure you have the same goals on issues likely to come up. This could include a timeframe and budget range for a family vacation. You could also discuss any conflict you are aware of between the siblings, especially to fill in gaps in each other’s knowledge and to be ready to suggest a few solutions from which they can choose.
Family meetings provide a working model of conflict resolution and affirm the value of each member of the group. This model can be carried forward to your children’s future families as well as workplaces and other community units.
Review with each child which spaces in your home are personal spaces — a bed if they share a room — and which areas are open to anyone’s use on a first come first served basis. When one family member is occupying a space such as the kitchen table, permission must be gained to divide it or to take it over after a reasonable time. If one family member has a guest, the same courtesy applies for requesting admittance, or apologizing because you have to quickly retrieve something from a shared space that is currently occupied.
Permission to stay may be denied, necessitating suggestions of an alternative space and/or a promise to give advance notice that a certain space or device will be needed for an extended period. Much like a chore chart, an agreement can be worked out at a family meeting for the use of the family room/the computer/the television etc. to avoid future frustration. The agreement gets posted as a reminder to everyone.
The best place to keep things that are not to be shared is in a designated room, drawer, shelf, box, or other clearly defined space. Many conflicts can be avoided if items that are not to be shared are not kept in shared spaces.
Respecting personal information follows similar guidelines. A private conversation between a parent and child about such sensitive matters as a poor grade on a test, an inappropriate choice of an outfit, or a disconcerting friendship should take place in privacy. Likewise parents should offer congratulatory comments privately too, such as about a great grade, an outfit that makes a terrific first impression, or a triumph in gaining a good friend or distancing oneself from a questionable one. Just as with personally owned objects, the child can decide which of his ups and downs he wishes to share with his sibling.
While it would be nice for everyone if children living in the same household respected, supported, and enjoyed each other, they are freer to choose their friends than to choose their family.
Encourage your children to express their individual personalities and interests through clubs, classes, sports and other hobbies. Through these activities each child can develop friendships that enrich their knowledge, enhance their skills and help them discover who they can be. The tween years are perfect for new discoveries about oneself, and perfect for finding new friends.
Friendship is a great topic for one-on-one discussions with each of your children. Parents can also share reminiscences of good and bad choices of friends as part of family time. Try this checklist (from North Shore Pediatrics in the Chicago area) to evaluate your own past friendships and in so doing subtly advise your children to evaluate their current prospects.
- Are you able to be yourself around them?
- Do they make you feel good about yourself?
- Do you have interests and hobbies in common?
- Do you take turns being leader and follower?
- Would you stand up for each other?
- Do they want to help you when you’re upset?
- Do they listen when you need to talk about your feelings?
- Do they respect you when you say “no”?
- Can you work it out together when you have a fight?
A nice outcome of having experienced a good friendship is that your children will know how to recognize the next good friendship they find themselves in and how to play the role of a good friend. Who knows, one day they may see the potential for a good friend in that sibling.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.