By Hilary Levey Friedman
Sibling relationships are some of the most significant ones we have. While their emotional depth and complexity provide fertile ground for fictional explorations, we actually know very little about how we might improve these relationships. In her newest book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, clinical psychologist Laura Markham tackles this important topic by blending her experiences as a mother, parent coach, and researcher.
Many will know Markham from her 2012 book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. In that book she details three ways parents can create a peaceful family environment: 1) regulating emotions, 2) staying warmly connected, and 3) coaching instead of controlling to foster emotional intelligence. These three principles continue to lead in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, especially as they work together to develop empathy in kids. Markham explains: “Empathy helps children develop self-regulation. When a child feels understood, he feels closer to his parents, so he’s more likely to accept limits and cooperate.” The argument is that you could easily swap the word “parents” for “siblings” in the above statement.
At the core of developing this empathy between children is the idea that how parents interact with each child individually—and especially how they discipline each one—shapes the relationships between children. In Chapter 2, one of the best chapters in the book, Markham draws upon research to explain how this works and she then translates this to everyday practice in our often chaotic households. She argues that we should not punish when children mistreat brothers or sisters, but rather set firm limits. The reasoning? From Markham, “As crazy as it sounds, that means they see it as YOUR job to stop them from attacking their sibling when they get angry, rather than as THEIR job to control themselves. When we set limits so the child feels understood, she ends up internalizing our limits—and taking responsibility for herself, even in the absence of authority figures.”
Markham is reassuring that all children will sometimes fight. In fact, this fighting is a good thing because it teaches us how to work out differences with others. This is particularly acute with siblings because, unlike with peers, there is no threat of an exit. For some number of years these little individuals must share a household. This is why, as Markham explains, siblings help kids learn to manage difficult emotions and smooth off the edges of early self-centeredness. In a line I would like to print out and hang in my kitchen, “Our goal as parents isn’t to keep things peaceful by settling our children’s differences. It’s to use the many daily conflicts that arise between our children as opportunities to help them create successful resolutions to their conflicts.”
If you only have a few hours to read, in between sibling fights, I recommend Chapter 5 (along with Chapter 2), which focuses on teaching conflict resolution and the role laughter can play in breaking the tension. In particular Markham discusses ten reasons kids bicker and how to resolve them in this chapter. Also for parents with younger kids looking to nip conflicts in the bud as much as possible early on, focus on Part 3, which contains tips on preparing a sibling for a baby through to the crawling and grabbing phase.
Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings provides lots of concrete suggestions to improve sibling relationships—note that my husband’s favorite is the thumbs-up to roughhousing—but all of these tips are very general. You won’t find passages focused on brotherly or sisterly relationships, the dynamics between multiples, or any other thoughts on complicated birth order patterns or larger families.
This drawback in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is precisely what makes sibling research so difficult in general—there are so many different combinations and configurations and often not a very large sample size. A lot of factors come into play including biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology when we talk about siblings and it’s often hard to disentangle which factor has the most influence and hence which one to target.
In the end what Dr. Laura Markham does in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and what more parenting writers need to do, is succinctly pick out the overarching aims, takeaways, and to-dos to benefit the greatest number of families. For this reason Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is a solid addition to your parenting library. And I am looking forward to celebrating, thanks to some inspiration for Markham, our families first ever sibling celebration day this year!
Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.