Promoting Sibling Kindness For All Ages
…And Teaching Turn-Taking to Young Children
“My child gets a new toy, shows it off and then rips it away telling her sibling, ‘No! You can’t play with it!’”
“I want my children to feel grateful for her brothers and for their toys and our life together.”
“If one has it, the other one wants it. It’s that simple.”
“I deal with so much bickering between brother and sister.”
“How do you adjust for their ages? How do you not require the older one to always give up something for the younger one?”
“My older son pokes the younger one to taunt her and it gets her upset every time.”
These concerns were the subject of my conversation with a local Mom’s Club yesterday. This group of parents’ biggest worries centered around sibling relationships. And there is wisdom in focusing on the central role they play in our children’s development. In fact, researchers have concluded that sibling relationships are unique from any other in that they can be as influential as both adult-child relationships and peer-to-peer interactions.1
Further, the frequent and often emotionally charged social exchanges of siblings serve as an impetus for social and emotional development as young children work to establish their status in the sibling relationship and their niche in the family.2
Though the trend in family size shows decreasing numbers, in 82% of U.S. families with children under the age of 18, there is at least one sibling.3 Researchers consistently find that siblings do serve as role models with younger siblings tending to imitate older siblings more frequently than the reverse.4, 5 How parents foster sibling relationships and treat all members in a family can help shape that influence on their children’s social and emotional development. Roles and identities in a family begin to take shape early and can have an impact on a child’s sense of confidence and ability to achieve.
Siblings can become competitive with one another, fighting over possessions, or achievement status, or Mom and Dad’s attention. But they can also foster greatness in one another. An older sibling can protect a younger sibling from household dangers. And sisters and brothers can play in ways that build social and emotional competence as they take one another’s perspective, negotiate the melding of their imaginations and create worlds together. In addition, they can work toward understanding how to be in close age relationships in healthy ways working through problems together, healing hurts, forgiving, and showing love for one another.
There is much parents can do in small, simple ways to cultivate sibling kindness. One of the most important can be cultivated as habits of thinking. You might consider:
- How do you talk about your gratefulness for each family member and for your good life together?
- How do you take notice of positive, kind behaviors between and among siblings?
Though it may seem obvious, regularly discussing gratitude helps cultivate grateful thinking in our children. And while we may get daily doses of negativity from social media or other sources, we may have to become more intentional about voicing our gratitude for our lives with one another. Picking a time of day in which to do it consistently helps cultivate the habit.
In addition, do you point out when you see siblings getting along, working together? We may tend to quickly pour our coffee and breathe a sigh of relief when our children are playing at a peaceful hum. And though you don’t want to break that peace-filled play reverie (nor do you need to), take note to say a word about it later. “I notice that you and your sister were building a fort this afternoon as a team working together. I just love seeing that!” Those simple recognitions will go a long way toward promoting more of the same.
In addition, sharing toys and dealing with possessions in a family can become a regular challenge particularly with young children. How does a parent deal with the issue of sharing so as not to prioritize one over another and to teach valuable social lessons?
Parents can keep in mind that toys are not simply entertainment vehicles for children as we might tend to view them. Instead, they are tools for development. And as such, they play a critical role in a child’s life. This is not to claim that every toy is critical but all toys can be viewed as having the potential to support learning. So when a child is heavily engaged in playing with a toy hammer working hard on his fine motor skills and its taken away, it’s no wonder he cries in anger and upset. Parent enforced sharing can easily become a power struggle and sends the message that your child’s learning is not sacred and important but can be shifted to the other child in a moment’s notice.It does help to establish a simple, clear rule about turn-taking and also, to practice turn-taking as a family.
Here are some helpful tips for teaching turn-taking with young children!
- Establish the “Do No Harm” Rule.
In other words, play can be acceptable as long as each individual stays safe and respects the safety of the toys or tools and the household environment. As long as people or things remain undamaged, then children’s play can continue. If harm is caused, guide each child to repair harm. See more on this important topic below.
- Put Away the Most Sacred.
Perhaps there is a single teddy bear, in our case, Betsy Bear, who is beloved. When we have others over for playdate or even if siblings are playing together with toys strewn about, we are careful to put Betsy Bear away in a safe place in the closet. After all, that one toy would cause great upset if she were to be harmed. We don’t put away multiple toys but each child can have one very sacred toy that can be theirs alone to keep safe and away from the playing area.
3. Practicing Turn Taking.
Young children can benefit from a number of opportunities to practice. Not only does it help them at home, but also it prepares them for interactions in playgroups and eventually in preschool. Practice at dinnertime with the whole family and be sure and model the behavior first. “Momma is taking a turn with the salt shaker. Once I’m finished, I’ll let Daddy have his turn.” Then, just before going into a time of day when play is taking place, remind of your practice. “Remember how we took turns at dinner. Let’s try that out today.”
Here are various fun games that can easily be played at home that could involve turn-taking. Some are quick and some are more elaborate.
Ball play – kicking or rolling the ball back and forth
Hide and seek – take turns hiding and seeking each round
Bake – make something yummy and take turns measuring and pouring ingredients
Hopscotch – take turns hopping down the numbers
Vehicle Obstacle Course – create an easy obstacle course on your driveway for their bikes. Use cones or sticks or stuffed animals that they must ride around. Maybe they have to pick up a stuffed animal on the other side of a series of rocks. This can be easy and fun!
Music Making – Put on some music and get out one instrument to play with it. Allow the siblings to take turns banging the drum or humming on the kazoo to the music.
4. Take Time to Address Upset.
If fighting occurs, take the time required to help each child calm down. Perhaps they need to seek a comfort item like a blanket or a quiet space. When all have had a chance to calm down, then focus on feelings. Reflect back what you thought you saw. “You seemed mad and sad when your brother grabbed your toy, is that right?” “Brother, you seemed angry at your sister for not giving the toy to you. Is that right?”
Emphasize that we are all learning how to play together cooperatively. Do not place blame. If a child needs to repair harm of a broken toy or broken feelings, help him or her do that. Then, focus on how all can feel better. Talk about comforting activities. Will drawing help? Will a walk outside to get fresh air help? Change the playthings and if you can, the environment to recreate the energy and start fresh.
Here are some helpful tips for encouraging sibling kindness at any age!
1. Conduct an Attention Audit
To children, our attention is a reward. What do we reinforce each day through our attention? Also, is one child in particular receiving more positive or negative feedback? Ask yourself the following questions to raise your awareness about the balance of your encouraging, supportive comments versus your critical ones. Go through these questions for each child and then, consider how your attention may be perceived between siblings.
- What are typical daily comments I make in relation to _______________ (insert family members) behavior?
- How many of those comments are about problems I observe?
- How many of those comments recognize positive contributions?
- How frequently do I comment on that particular problem behavior? (twice a day, weekly?)
- Does the behavior truly harm the child or others or property? And if so, how can I facilitate a behavior change by modeling or coaching? If not, how can I let it go?
2. Model Sibling Kindness
How can you practice being kind to one another? Practicing turn-taking with toys is certainly one way. But when your family is spending free time together, how can you model kind behaviors you want to see in your children? Can you demonstrate helping behaviors from one child to the other? One way to model with young children is to show them how to act kindly, for example, by putting away another child’s toy. And then, taking it the next step, by asking if the child might teach her favorite doll or bear how to treat their sibling kindly. Watch as she plays demonstrates gently putting another toy in its place.
3. Notice and Reinforce Sibling Kindness
Children will reproduce behaviors that we name and recognize – whether positive or negative. Look for even small acts of care between siblings and call them out. “I notice you held the door for your brother. That was a caring gesture.” Make discussions of spotting kindness a regular part of your dinner conversation recognizing any family members small acts. Children will learn that it is a family value and will begin to notice more themselves as well as, replicate the behaviors you are paying attention to.
4. Set a Positive Goal.
During a family discussion, identify particularly challenging times. For example, “It seems like right before dinner when we are tired from the day and hungry, we typically get into arguments about using screens or which toys should be shared.” Take a moment to share ideas on alternatives for those moments. Ask, “what could we do instead to get along during that time?” Then, set a positive goal. You might decide, “We will work as a team to help prepare for dinner so that we can move toward eating quickly.” If you begin a playtime with a goal of collaboration, children are much more likely to focus on solving problems and working together. Just before entering those challenging times of day, be sure and provide a helpful, gentle reminder. “Remember our teamwork goal.”
5. Support Siblings in Repairing Harm.
When damage has been done to a plaything or a person, a child needs to learn to take responsibility for the harm caused by working to repair it whether physical or psychological. Parents can lead a child through this process and teach the invaluable skill of responsible decision-making. When Joey breaks his sister’s Barbie doll, Mom can work with Joey to repair it. But in addition to the physical repairing of harm, Joey may have hurt his sister’s feelings. So Mom could ask Joey how he thinks he could help his sister feel better. Asking your child how they might repair hurt feelings helps him think through alternatives. He may offer his sister a hug or help her with a project she’s working on. However he chooses to help, the parent can support Joey in following through. This prepares siblings with practice so that they can be prepared to make things better on their own during playtime.
Sibling relationships do play a shaping role in children’s social and emotional development. There’s much parents can do to create a home culture that fosters kindness. By simply focusing on recognizing and promoting care between brothers and sisters, children are much more likely to regularly show loving kindness to one another.
1. McHale, S.M., Updegraff, K.A., & Whiteman, S.D. (2012). Sibling relationships and influences in childhood and adolescence. Journal of Marriage and Family, Sept. 24.
2. Dunn J. Sibling relationships in early childhood. Child Development. 1983;54:787–811.
3. King et al. (2010). Integrated Public Use Micro-data Series, Current Population Survey: Version 3.0. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
4. Brim OG. (1958). Family structure and sex role learning by children: A further analysis of Helen Koch’s data. Sociometry. 21:1–16.
5. Abramovitch R, Corter CM, Lando B. (1979). Sibling interaction in the home. Child Development. 50:997–1003.