On any given day, a parent needs to be a chef, chauffeur, beautician, tutor, exterminator, doctor, coach—the list is endless. But the role parents assume more often than any other is psychologist.
If your child is bullied, stressed over exams, having bad dreams, or struggling with an identity crisis, it’s often your job to make it all better. Parents who have more than one child face a potentially larger challenge: how do you promote the “do your best” philosophy without promoting sibling rivalry? How can you help your kids encourage each other?
Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring—quite often the hard way.
I was recently faced with a sibling encouragement conundrum of epic proportions. My two daughters decided to audition for a local singing competition. With Murphy’s Law working overtime, I received two emails a few days later: one explaining that daughter number one hadn’t made the competition, and one explaining, with great enthusiasm, that daughter number two made the cut. Gulp. What’s a Supermom to do?
There’s never an easy answer—every sibling relationship is unique and requires different strategies. But, through years of trial and error, I’ve come up with four universal tactics that’ll get you through the trenches.
Model the desired behavior
It’s no secret that kids will learn from their parents’ behavior. Yet all too often I hear parents calling other drivers unspeakably bad names, or otherwise failing at common decency, all while drilling their kids to, “Be kind and be polite!” If we want our children to encourage one another, we need to show them how it’s done.
If you run for a PTA position and your opponent wins, don’t walk away mumbling under your breath that the school will suffer without you leading the charge. Offer your rival warm congratulations instead. You can even let him or her know that you’re always available to help. Similarly, if a friend or relative earns an envious promotion, think before you speak! Support, congratulate, and encourage your newly promoted friend with your words and your actions. Think about how you’d like to be treated and then model that behavior.
Build up each child’s strengths
If one child is a supremely talented violin player, feel free to be proud or boastful (within reason). But make sure you spend just as much time focusing on your other child’s awesome math grades or athletic ability. If your children have their own, highlighted area of expertise, they’re more likely to support and encourage each other in their individual pursuits.
Don’t use a spotlight
After the singing competition incident, my ten-year-old daughter gave me some sage insight. When she first learned she hadn’t made the cut, she was immediately super supportive of her sister. She chose to deliver the great news to her sister, and she was excited to watch her little sister perform on a big stage. After a week of attention focused solely on her sister and the pending competition, her enthusiasm waned. When she was ready to voice her feelings, she explained that it seemed as though there were one giant spotlight pointed directly at her singing sister. Because of that single spotlight, she and everyone else in the family was being left in complete darkness.
While she didn’t want to take the spotlight away from her sister, she did want the light more evenly dispersed. Brilliant. We were all caught up in the thrill of our superstar, and I was remorseful and relieved when our error was so clearly pointed out by my young philosopher. If you want your children to encourage each other, they need to know that they are all in the spotlight for different reasons, at different times. Ensure no one feels left offstage in the dark.
Know when it’s time to give your kids an out
Sometimes your kids’ paths and passions will cross. Maybe your two daughters will try out for the same singing competition—just as an example. When that happens, be prepared to offer your child an out.
We want our kids to support each other. But if your son’s team advanced to the playoffs while your daughter’s team was left in the dust, tell your daughter that it’s okay if she wants to hang out with a friend. Don’t force her to sit in the stands at his playoff game. I told my oldest daughter (after the spotlight talk) that she could absolutely find a friend to hang out with during the singing competition. I made sure that I let her know that choosing that route was totally acceptable—no one would think any less of her.
Our kids are human, and their feelings are real. The worst thing a parent can do is to force one sibling to encourage the other. That’s a surefire way to breed resentment and unhealthy rivalries. Know your children’s limits and respect them.
If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.