Helping siblings get along

Siblings: can't we all just get along?
Siblings: can't we all just get along? Photo: Getty

"Little birds in their nests shouldn't quarrel."

So said my grandmother to her kids when they argued. She desperately wanted them to get along, and would try to discipline them into doing so. But didn't work. None of the siblings were close as kids and are not now close as adults.

The internet abounds with advice about warring siblings. Tips include avoiding comparing your kids to each other, avoiding getting involved in their battles, setting ground rules, and rewarding good behaviour.

And then there are the suggestions from parents. One mother famously devised the 'Getting Along Shirt', which was posted online and became an internet sensation.

Well, the 'Getting Along Shirt' was great for memes and made the mother look really clever, but did it work? I doubt it. I suspect it would just have increase the resentment between the kids. Children do not like to be forced into close contact with others with whom they're in conflict. None of us do.

Now, my parenting is very flawed, but I did do one thing right. All my kids get along exceptionally well. I have a 15-year-old son, a 13-year-old daughter, and a seven-year-old little girl, and they are remarkably close. The two eldest adore each other's company despite being different genders, the two girls play beautifully together despite being different ages, and my eldest is very nurturing of his little sister, who, in turn, adores him.

That's not to say they don't all get on each other's nerves occasionally, but they rarely fight, and are generally kind to each other.

So what's my secret?

Well, the key is to never, ever force it. We can't 'make' our kids love each other, any more than we can 'make' ourselves love anyone. But I do believe passionately that trying to force our kids to get along is the most counterproductive thing we can do.


And so I have always ensured that my kids have had their own space away from each other. Even when they shared a room, I clearly delineated their corners, and their belongings. They do not need to share toys or friends if they don't want to, and they can retreat to their own space when they wish. This gives them a sense of security and empowerment, and removes the resentment that comes from obligatory sharing.

And I intervene as little as humanly possible. When the older kids were both small, I'd separate them when they were squabbling badly. I wouldn't engage in conflict resolution, or make them kiss each other, or (god forbid) wear a tee shirt meant for one. I would put them on opposite ends of the house and literally forbid them from interacting. This meant that they had time to calm down, and time to miss each other. I would wait until they were actually asking to play together again, and then hold out a little longer before giving them permission.

Now that they're older, I let them work out their disputes for themselves. And if the little one is irritating her brother or sister I try to let them deal with her. If she bugs them, and they warn her, and she doesn't behave, she has to cope if they kick her out of the game or yell at her. The result is that they have sorted their relationships really well, and rarely ask me to get involved.

We can't force our children to get along. Little birds in their nests do quarrel. But if we stand back, and give them the space and respect every person deserves, then hopefully they will find their way to each other.