We all want our kids to get along.
But I want more than that. I want mine to LOVE each other. I mean, really love each other, and have a heart to put the others first, and serve them.
Why? Because when they grow up, I want them to show that type of love for everyone--putting others first, and having a servant's heart.
I believe that starts with me, as their parent, teaching this attitude in our family setting, with each other, while they are growing up.
So... how to do that?
1. The General Rule: I have a general house rule that says, "Your job is to make your brothers happier, not more upset." (Right now I have all boys ages 2, 4, 6, 8 that require the bulk of my "teaching"). If one or two boys are playing happily, and then all of a sudden another joins them and it causes wails and protests... I instantly come in with the reminder of this rule. Your job is to ADD joy. Never take it away. So, let's do this over and how are you going to do it so that the JOY stays?
2. Positive Reinforcement. I ALWAYS praise and reward when I see my kids acting selflessly, being giving, or loving. I hug them, tell them "good job." I tell them Jesus is pleased with how they are loving. I have them take it a step further by coming with me to the kitchen to secretly bake a batch of cookies as a surprise for their siblings. I give them a gold medal (from the dollar store--but they wear them like they are real gold!), or... anything that comes to mind.
3. Encourage Loving Activities. I encourage the others to find fun in planning surprises and gifts for the others. At least twice a week in this house, the siblings will draw pictures for each other, write notes for each other, make a craft for each other, or plan some other surprise (like build a surprise marble track or race track for the other to try, or fix a special treat with me as a surprise snack for the others--even if it's just a surprise cup of hot chocolate). I encourage them to do the other's chores on their chore chart as an act of love and kindness (this is becoming standard practice, I'm happy to say!).
4. Creative Problem Solving. If the older two are having a disagreement, then I make them sit down and come up with an planned, agreed-upon arrangement to settle their dispute or solve their problem, and then tell me the solution. If the younger ones are involved in a disagreement or misunderstanding, I have them "hug it out" for a minimum of 10 seconds--while I time them audibly out loud. It always ends in giggles and good feelings. I'm trying to teach them that bad feelings can be willingly chosen to be left behind and replaced by good actions and deliberate acts of love.
5. Team Play and Together Activities: I encourage game playing, and sharing of their video game turns. If they are having a hard time playing together, I may help them "map out a plan," like give them a vision for a big block/marble project, or Lego/Hot Wheels project, and assign them each different parts so that it all comes together. I let them do fun things like picnics on the school room floor, and sleep-overs on the living room floor. They feel like friends as well as siblings.
6. Continually build an atmosphere of encouragement. It is a common occurrence for my boys to show each other their school work and accomplishments and get a VERY enthusiastic "ooh!" and "ahh!" and "WOW!" from their siblings. Whether it's the perfectly written letter "e" on a penmanship page, a beautifully colored illustration, or a nicely symmetrical original design Lego car or spaceship. They give each other high-fives, pats on the back, and lots of words of encouragement. I hear lots of "Great Job!" and "That's really awesome!" When the 4yo hears words like that from his older brothers... the beaming on his face doesn't stop for a LONG time. It's quite lovely.
7. I never discount hurt feelings. They happen. Misunderstandings between siblings and frustrations over all sorts of things. I ALWAYS listen if they get hurt or upset. Always. These become teaching opportunities. Sometimes it means helping an older child understand the perspective or needs of a younger, and encouraging them to have more compassion. Sometimes it means helping a younger child learn a bit more about growing up, and how to be a little less selfish and more giving. Sometimes it means reiterating boundaries and respect for personal belongings, and keeping the lines clear (I believe in ownership, which teaches good stewardship and generosity, so the boys have things that are distinctly "theirs" and the others may not touch them without permission--but I encourage them to give permission). But if one of them comes to me in tears because there has been a problem with a sibling, I stop and listen completely with empathy and sympathy. This also sends the message that these relationships are IMPORTANT and take priority.
8. Transition this attitude into all of life.
For my older children, these principles transition beautifully into the larger picture of life as they get more and more involved in outside activities. Because learning to live a life of love starts in the home--with how they are taught to treat their siblings.
I still encourage my older ones (15 and 19) to put the needs of their younger siblings first as a habit and rule and way of life, reminding them that they can never practice this too much. Not to mention, their example to their younger siblings is one of the most powerful teaching tools (don't believe that? Have your 6yo jump off the coffee table while the 2yo is watching--and see the power of example).
I also teach them to "BE" a friend first, and encourage them to be an example, and unmoved in their convictions when around others. For example, my daughter (now 15), when she joined a children's chorus at age 7, I did tell her that she had to be kind and loving to the others, helpful to the younger ones or shy ones, and never be induced to join foolish behavior, or even foolish conversation. If the others were not listening, or running, or being foolish, she was to stay fixed in her chair with her eyes on her director, or get away from the foolish behavior. As long as she could show me she could do that, she could stay in the choir. And I committed to watching her--because it was my job to teach her in this area. I did watch her rehearsals (I don't have to any longer). She has now been in choir for 8 years, and she travels and tours the world with a very talented bunch of children from high schools all over the area and enjoys some very special friendships. I don't worry about her. She has learned to help and mentor the younger, show friendliness and kindness to all, and set an example of obedience and respect, and turn her back on foolishness. At age 15, she is naturally starting to emerge as a leader and one that her friends look to for example and help--and she is not a natural leader in her God-given personality. She is just kind and wise.
My older son is the same way. He is nearly 20 now, but it is lovely to see his kindness to others--especially those whom others don't treat so kind (common among young 20-something men in a work environment). His firm commitment to respect of authority and the avoidance of foolishness, and his servant's heart that puts others first--it gets him promotions at work, and wins the respect of his coworkers continually.
My 6yo started gymnastics this past year. The boys in his class didn't listen, and continually shoved each other for the first place in line. The coach spent more than half the lesson time retrieving the boys from running around, or just trying to get their attention, trying to get them to stop playing around, fighting, and trying to get them to listen and obey. After that first night, I had a talk with my son (then 5), and laid his ground rules for gymnastics class. 1. Always take the last place in line. 2. Always keep your eyes on your coach, and listen to every word. 3. If the other boys tried to fight, or shove, or be distracting, his job was to put his hand out, silently, in a "stop" motion to the other boy(s), and move closer to his instructor (standing firm in conviction and setting example). That worked beautifully. By the third week, the instructor came to me after class and said, "Whatever you're doing to raise your children, keep doing it! I've never had a nicer, more mature, more attentive boy in my class." And 5yo boys cling to rules, by nature. My son still does these things every class--even though the other boys have all dropped out and he has been having one-on-one gymnastics coaching!
Anyhoo... coffee's gone. Just sharing my heart because I think it's something that all us mamas wish for in our children.