I once saw a quote to the effect of, "the greatest gift my parents ever gave me was my siblings." Truly, sibling relationships provide children with unmatched bonding. The adventures shared together as children connect through adulthood in beautiful and meaningful ways. And the social skills gained by negotiating those childhood years together - conflict resolution, cooperation, leadership, sharing, etc. - are invaluable.
However, raising kids together isn't always sweetness and light. Sibling relationships involve rivalry for parental attention, for achievement, even for resources. This is why it is important for parents to be proactive in nurturing friendships among children.
Talk about it
Parents know how important it is to tell our kids that we love them. It is logical then that in order to cultivate relationships among our kids, particularly when they are too little to do it themselves, we need to tell them that they love each other. It may feel goofy at first, but phrases like, "look how much you love your sister," or "what a great brother you are," and "what a great sister you have," establish in kids' minds the positive relationships. Look for opportunities to point out to them that they love each other. It not only solidifies the bond, but provides positive re-enforcement for whatever loving behavior the child was doing.
Insist on respect
Make sure that home is a safe place where no bullying of any kind - physical, emotional or verbal is tolerated. Early rules outlawing name-calling, bad language, violence and anything that degrades or patronizes create an atmosphere where friendships can thrive free from fear or dominance.
Let them work it out
I'm definitely not suggesting we let our homes become Lord of the Flies, but if parents rush in to solve every dispute, we're robbing our kids of the opportunity to learn conflict resolution in a safe environment. When a child comes running with a complaint against a sibling, express confidence in his or her ability to solve the problem, coupled with, "I know how much you love each other and want to work it out." If the dispute escalates, remind them, "Siblings are more important than toys (or video games, or whatever). Think about that for a few minutes and then I know you can solve this." Of course, sometimes tempers are just too hot and parents must intervene, but letting them try first is a great opportunity to let them learn as well as strengthen relationships. I'm always amazed that their solutions are often more generous and creative than what I would have imposed.
It is well known that we love those we serve. This goes for siblings as well. Look for opportunities to let brothers and sisters help each other. Older children helping younger kids with homework, or reading stories to toddlers; random acts of kindness; games involving a "secret friend" who leaves treats or does chores - there are many ideas to get siblings helping each other and bonding.
Cooperative work requires communication and dedication toward a common goal. When this goal is reached together, relationships are forged. My very best memories with my siblings are of work together - cleaning while singing silly songs at the top of our lungs, weeding our strawberry patch, picking peaches.
The Family that Plays Together"
Silly and imaginative play, video games, building Legos, hiking, vacations, or whatever form the play takes: it doesn't really matter as long as there is lots of giggling and everyone feels included. It has been said, "Play is the work of childhood." It is during play that essential developmental pathways are formed in the brain. When siblings and family are the ones sharing in this play, they become part of the development.