Encourage respect and kindness

When my boys were young, I’d make them shake hands and say they were sorry whenever they fought. I’d remind them that their brother was their lifetime friend—one that trumped all other friendships. It felt a little corny at the time, but I did it anyway. After all, I wanted them to know what I knew: friends come and go but siblings last a lifetime.

If you want your kids to be close, take every chance that comes along to strengthen the relationship between them. Here are some ideas.

Do activities they both enjoy

Activities unite people, and people who play together, often stay together. That’s why it’s important to engage in activities that define you as a family—things you all love doing together, whether it’s skiing and biking or tennis and basketball. You’ll be surprised how your kids will be willing to do these activities together through the years—even when the oldest becomes a teenager and mostly wants to hang out with friends. When the family habit is engrained, kids are less likely to buck it. If you are lucky, your kids will grow up and continue to do these activities, with or without you.

Resist comparing one to the other

Statements like, ‘Why can’t you study hard, like your sister?’ only work to drive a wedge between siblings. No one wants to be compared to someone else and fall short. If you want one child to study harder, speak directly to him or her about the behavior, as in, “I’d like to see you try harder with your homework. Let’s brainstorm ways to make it easier for you.” Also, be conscious about pointing out what each child is good at in front of their siblings. This not only builds self pride, but pride in each other.

Help them find the words

When your kids have a disagreement, break it up and make them spend time apart until they cool down. When ready, help them come back together by initiating a conversation where they both start with, “When that happened, I felt….” Speaking from the I point of view (rather than using the word “you” or blaming) empowers kids to share what the dispute was like for them and encourages siblings to see what happened from their sibling’s perspective. By teaching some basic communication skills early on, you give them tools to build on as they grow older.

Besides helping them find the right words, help your kids identify their emotions. A child might seem angry, when they are really frustrated, or sad when they are really lonely. Helping your kids identify their feelings helps them calm down. Instead of stating what you are observing, as in, “You’re mad because he hurt your feelings,” ask it as a question. “You seem mad, and that maybe your feelings were hurt, is that right?”

Force mutual respect

Set some ground rules on acceptable behavior (e.g., no name calling, yelling, hitting, taking someone’s possessions) and stick to them. Share the ground rules and the consequences for breaking them with your kids, making sure they are clear. Repeat them over and over again, post them on the fridge, tell the nanny, babysitter, or grandparents. Behavioral ground rules take really hurtful behavior off the table and limit the chance that siblings will create scars that don’t heal and build resentments. It’s exhausting to feel like you are policing your children’s behavior, but letting it slide, even now and then, gives them unspoken permission to act poorly next time. On the flip side, when you see your children being kind to each other, point it out. Simply saying, “I really like how you two are getting along, today” reinforces the good behavior and the expectation for it.

Of course, disagreements will still happen, and their closeness will wax and wane over the years. But when you see your kids getting along and hanging out together as young adults in the future, the satisfaction will be worth it.