As my children grow older, I worry less about things like sleep and eating and more about bigger issue things like morals and relationships. Sleep and eating are not less important, but for us, we have long put behind us the need for concern on those topics. We addressed those concerns while they were young. They are "old hat" and we are able to focus on bigger issues.
One such big issue is sibling relationships. All siblings argue from time to time, but as parents, we really hope to instill a lifelong friendship among our children. We also realize that much of how they learn to interact with siblings at home will spill over into interaction with peers out in the world. On Becoming Childwise by Gary Ezzo and Robert Buckham has some great tips on maintaining sibling relationships and minimizing conflict among siblings. Of course the conflict will not go away--they are human children who live under the same roof; these tips, however, should help keep things a lot more peaceful. These tips are found on pages 104-109.
1-Teach Children to Resolve Their Own Conflict
Can I just say that one of the best decisions I made years ago as a parent was to not step in and solve problems between my children? There are so many good reasons to do this. For one, your children will not be running to you each time they disagree. For another, they will learn conflict resolution at home with people they love. This is a low-risk situation to learn how to compromise and get along.
Naturally, the first thing you need to do is to teach your children and coach your children on conflict resolution. Some people are naturally better at conflict resolution than others. I have a daughter who has amazing conflict resolution skills. She really is a natural at it. I have another child who really needs coaching and guidance. Don't expect children to know how to take turns, compromise, and problem solve just because they breathe on this earth. Teach them. Coach them. Give them ideas on how to solve problems.
As you expect them to resolve their own conflicts, make it clear that if they are unwilling to work on getting along without your help, they will not enjoy the outcome. When my children cannot come to a resolution, my solution is that they just don't get to play with each other for a specified amount of time. If they can't get along, they can't play with each other. No one ever likes that solution, so they work on resolving things together. Again, let me remind you that they must be taught first. You can't expect them to solve their own problems without any problem solving tools to turn to, but once they have these tools, you can expect them so solve problems and to do so from a young age.
A final tip I have for you on this topic is for you to remain in earshot but out of eyesight when a conflict is being resolved. You need to listen and make sure the older child is not throwing his weight around to get his way or that the younger child is not emotionally manipulating to get his way. You need to listen and be sure they are practicing their conflict resolution skills appropriately. Listen to make sure no one is using phrases like, "Fine, then I'm not playing with you" or "If you don't do what I want, I won't be your friend anymore." When I hear negotiations aren't going well, I try to wait and see if they can come to a common ground. If they do, I talk to the individual child later who had some poor choices during negotiations and remind that we don't XYZ. If they can't resolve, I try to step in and negotiate, but I really don't step in unless I see no resolution in sight. Also, you can't possibly listen in on every discussion your children have, and I don't think you should, but especially during early training days, try to be aware of the conversations going on. For more on having siblings resolve conflict, see this post on siblings and fighting.
2-Teach Children to Not Tattle
Oh tattling! It seems to be the bane of teachers and mothers alike. Tattling is an interesting topic because you want children to be able to come to you with real issues, but you don't want to be bombarded with "he said/she saids" all day long. Observing number one above will naturally help with tattling issues, but it will not solve them.
Childwise suggests some guidelines for children. One is that you allow children to alert you if someone is hurt or in danger. This is okay.
You also want children to feel comfortable coming to an adult when they need help solving conflict. It is a great way to learn, and you don't want them rolling on the floor fist fighting or screaming in a war of words.
What you do not allow is a child telling you something because he or she wants another child to get into trouble. I often let my children know that any tattling done out of malice will be met with the tattling child receiving the punishment he or she desires for the sibling.
We do not live in a tattle-free home. It ebbs and flows. I have seen, however, a tattle-prone child learn to distinguish when it is appropriate to come alert me and when it is something to work out. It takes more than a few days, weeks, or even months of work, but the work does pay off.
3-Teach Children to Observe Physical and Verbal Kindness
In our home, we do not tolerate physical aggression nor to we tolerate verbal aggression or manipulation. Teach your children to speak kindly to each other. Remember to focus on the virtue rather than the vice. Also, do not allow physical aggression toward each other.
Just like you need to teach conflict resolution skills, you need to teach communication skills. Children need to be taught to use please and thank you. They need to be taught to not interrupt (how many adults could use that lesson!). They need to be taught how to share. They need to be taught how to listen (my minor is in communications and I had an entire semester long class just on listening--it is a real skill to learn).
Children also need to be taught to be happy for others. Teach them that when a sibling does something well, they can congratulate them and be happy for the sibling--there is no need to "one-up" or try to be just as good or better than the sibling. A simple example happened at our house many years ago. A sister exclaimed "Look how big of a bubble I blew!" and a sibling replied, "I have blown bigger bubbles than that before." This was a moment to take the sibling aside and remind that the proper way to respond is with enthusiasm for the sibling. There is no need to compete. Congratulating another does not diminish any past accomplishments you have made in the same area.
4-Teach Children to be Service Minded
Service is such a powerful parenting tool. Teaching children to serve is really setting them up to be happy people who love and care for others. Serving brings love, contentment, and joy. I have posts on teaching charity, loving others, and teaching love.
There are so many ways to teach service, and many of those ways start with parental example. All areas of service will help family relationships at home.
A great idea for service in the home is family chores. You want to teach your children about work and personal responsibility. We have always treated cleaning in our family as a job of everyone. When we are cleaning bedrooms, we all help clean each other's rooms. When we are picking up a mess that has been made, we all help even if we didn't make the mess. When our children were younger and would complain about this cleaning a mess they didn't make, we pointed out that mom and dad didn't help make the mess and we help clean it up, so the child can certainly help clean messes made by other children.
On Becoming Childwise talks about studies on children's chores. "Children who performed household chores showed more compassion for their siblings and other family members than children who didn't not share in family responsibility" (page 108). Giving your child chores that benefit the entire family (as opposed to simply cleaning their own room and making their own bed) helps him or her to be more caring for their family members. This makes complete sense. Serving others helps you love them. I have also found the child is more aware of the messes he or she makes around the house--the child is better about cleaning up after him/herself. You can find many more ideas on chores here.
These are four tips on helping your children get along better with each other. Help your children to learn to solve conflicts, understand when to turn to adults for help, have kindness toward each other, and serve each other and they will grow in their love and respect for each other. Yes, they will still bicker. Yes, they will still have days they don't get along well. But overall, they will build relationships and become each other's best friends.