Paving the Way For Siblings Who Aren't Rivals

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My sister and I didn't get along very well. I used to deliberately chew food with my mouth open, smacking my lips loudly just because I knew it irritated her. I was the quintessential bratty younger sister.

Seeing this in my younger self has made raising our children to appreciate and nurture one another a primary goal for my husband and me.

When I was pregnant with our second child, we told our daughter, Savannah, who was then almost 3, how being a good sister was as important as being a good mommy and daddy. From the start, she adored her little brother, Riley. She brought him rattles, blankets, and bears. She would sing lullabies to help him sleep. Later, she proudly told her friends of his first tooth, his first word.

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Now that they're 5 and 2, they do lots of things together - playing, reading, snuggling. But I realize that they're not always going to get along and we have to continue to support their relationship.

As Riley has grown, it's been hard for us not to compare his landmarks with his sister's. He crawled, walked, and talked later than she did. He still can't get his colors straight, even though Savannah was sorting by color, shape, and size way before this. We're careful not to compare them directly. Why set them up to compete with each other? They have different strengths. Riley may not know green from red, but he can skip rocks much better than his sister. We try to praise their individual accomplishments without making judgments about which achievement might be more important.

We also want to teach our children to lean on each other instead of competing. A friend of mine tells her two children that if you have just one pencil, someone can easily break it in half. But if you put two pencils together, it's almost impossible to break them. Stick together.

Riley is at that age where he's mostly boy, but still baby "cute" and lacking inhibitions. He shows his tummy to strangers, flirts with women at the next dining table, says goodbye to everyone as we leave a store. Because of this, Riley - not Savannah anymore - is the one who gets many of the adoring comments. When Riley gets all the attention, I love to pull her close and whisper sweet things in her ear.

It's also hard for siblings to share. As soon as one chooses a toy, the other one wants the same thing. We've been tempted to go King Solomon's route, but that seems a little cruel (although we once cut a plastic slinky in two and that worked well!). We encourage sharing by having them take turns, even if we have to set a timer. Some parents buy two of everything. But that doesn't teach anything. After all, they have to learn to share with their friends, too.

The truth is, we deal with these same issues as adults. We compete in sports and for job openings. We want attention from our spouses, our bosses, our friends. We share the road with other cars. If we teach our children how to deal with these things at home, we'll give them a head start on dealing with the rest of the world.

The other day, Savannah went into the bathroom and closed the door. Riley tried to get in. When I asked him to not bother his sister, he looked up and said, "But I love her!"

Oh, to maintain that bond.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

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