How do we raise siblings?
February 1, 2005 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Parentingfilter: My husband and I are both only children. We have a 3 year old son and another boy on the way in a few months. Neither of us know anything about siblings – how to raise them, how to deal with them, what to expect. [+]

Part of our problem is we can’t imagine a relationship where our son isn’t the sole center of our universe – we have no model to go on - and we feel guilty at the prospect of having to share our affections. We keep hearing advice to not neglect one for the other (makes sense) and cautionary tales from people whose parents did so, usually the older in favor of the younger. We already feel like we don’t always have enough time to give the boy, and the prospect of dividing it both baffles and scares us. I would love some practical advice from siblings or parents about ways to incorporate the lil’ zygote into our family without doing irreparable harm to the firstborn.
posted by bibliowench to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Obviously, you need to concentrate on spending time with the three year old as a new baby will suck up all of your time and then some. You will end up spending more time with the baby than with your toddler as he will need more of it. It can help alleviate jealous feelings if you get your toddler excited about his new brother and let him share in some of the joy. Let him hold his brother etc. Make sure you keep up with important rituals like reading him to sleep at night.
posted by caddis at 12:31 PM on February 1, 2005

Well, with the proviso that every answer you get will be subjective and somewhat unique to the individual (he says, hoping to ward off any flames), my experience (my kids are 7 (today), 2.5, and 2 months) leads me to the following:

* Don't worry about having to share your affection: Through some strange alchemy it expands so there's enough for everyone. This was our biggest worry, and it proved unfounded.

* Do worry about dividing attention. That said, don't over-worry -- just always be conscious of including both kids as much as possible, and roughly dividing your time when you can't.

* Don't worry about causing "irreperable harm." Remember that although there may be short-term adjustments for your son, having a sibling provides long-term benefits.
posted by pardonyou? at 12:40 PM on February 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent, but I grew up in a huge extended family and I think one of the most important things I learned as one of three children is that life is never fair, but that's OK.

I think as long as you can give meaningful individual attention to each child, the exact amount is less of a worry. Try to make some time, say on a weekly basis, to do special, one-on-one things with your older child (maybe either you or your husband cares for the infant while the other takes your older son to the movies or the library or to the museum). Your kids won't be sitting there with a stopwatch, silently tallying the time you spend with the other one and storing it all up to guilt-trip you later. As long as they each feel loved, and they get attention for good reasons, you'll be fine.
posted by handful of rain at 1:07 PM on February 1, 2005

I have heard good things about the book Siblings Without Rivalry.
posted by xo at 1:33 PM on February 1, 2005

I have two kids 7 and 6 ... and had a brother and sister growing up.

I wouldn't really worry. You'll love both, they'll both have different needs and personalities and you'll deal with it. Just be as equitable as you can.

**** Caution spoilers below ****
The parenting game is rigged, there is no way to play it and still avoid the following:

The oldest will complain about how the youngest has life so much easier than he did.

The youngest will complain how the oldest gets to do all the fun stuff and he's excluded.

They will both fight each other over stupid stuff, they will behave extremely ... well ... childish at times.

However, these negatives are tempered by the fact that one day you will come across your oldest mentoring the youngest in some phase of life, creating that special bond between siblings.

So in the end it works out .... it just takes love, patience, and guidance.
posted by forforf at 1:45 PM on February 1, 2005

Great advice all around. The two things I would point out: First, no matter what, you will be the center of the universe for each of your kids, and also you know more about life than they can begin to imagine (at least until the teen years). You don't have to be the expert; that comes only with time and experience. You will be fine. Honest.

Second, seek out good role models, both for the kids and for yourselves. While neither my wife nor I are only children, we have never lived near family. In our own case, we've always belonged to a church and have been adopted by slightly more experienced couples. Find a couple that you think is doing a good job and tag along. You will learn little things that you never would have considered just by watching how they do things. Don't be offended if another parent offers advice (we never see our own kids through objective eyes, do we?) and if you feel you're just not getting it, don't be afraid to ask another parent for help. If you don't belong to a church and don't plan on joining, there are play groups, day care, etc., that provide opportunities to hook up with other parents.

This may seem like an uncomfortable situation, but in today's society, many of us are far away from family and adopting other couples as "aunts & uncles" for your kids is more common than you might think. And many families who have gotten help and good advice from friends in raising their kids are more than willing to pass the good deed down to young parents they encounter.

On preview: My boys are 14 & 17, and we've never had much of a sibling rivalry between them. It is rare, but forforf's spoilers can, in fact, be avoided. That being said, I'm not sure how it worked out so well.

Bottom line: Just love 'em.
posted by Doohickie at 2:00 PM on February 1, 2005

Based on growing up with two (younger) brothers, I'd say forforf has it about right. Your kids will complain about things not being divided fairly; do your best but don't go nuts -- even if they keep complaining, they'll realize that you're doing your best to be fair, which is what's important. They will fight; it shouldn't get out of hand, obviously, but don't worry about it in general: boys need to get it out of their system. My middle brother and I once had a knock-down drag-out fight in which he slammed my head down on a sharp kitchen-cabinet corner and made me bleed like a motherfucker, but I respected him for it and we're the best of friends. Try to discourage ratting on each other: it's hard for a kid to resist, but it's bad for inter-sibling relations, and it's not like you really need to know exactly how the china got broken -- have them both clean it up and ignore the bitching. Basically, what Doohickie said: Just love 'em.
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on February 1, 2005

The youngest will complain how the oldest gets to do all the fun stuff and he's excluded.

As a second child (of 2) and a doting aunt (of 3), I experienced (and witnessed) some of this. It won't necesarily manifest itself for awhile, but I think it's good to be aware that younger kids can often vaccillate between idolizing the older kid and being really frustrated that they can't do the same things the older sib can (either because they're not allowed or literally not able) -- and that can even include walking and talking. So, for example, #2 might be much less content to crawl at nine months than #1 was, or might be pretty discombobulated when #1 goes off to school for the first time.
posted by scody at 2:43 PM on February 1, 2005

We have two boys, ages 7 and 2.5, and we had many of the same fears. My husband is an only child, and I am much younger than my siblings, so we didn't have a lot of experience with those types of relationships. My husband hated being an only child, and I never had much in common with my siblings until we were adults.

forforf inspired me:

Be careful, because the worries about conflict and rivalry can become self-fulfilling. Kids, like bees, can smell fear. They will definitely pick up on your anxiety. If you expect them to be kind to each other and do what you can to foster comeraderie, they may come to need each other as much as they need you.

For the first few weeks after my second son was born, I was regularly "all touched out," meaning I spent so much time holding, carrying and feeding the baby that it was hard to muster up the energy to give my older son the physical affection he wanted and needed. I got in the habit of giving the older boy random hugs and kisses, even when I was exhausted, and it made both of us feel better.

The older child will probably strengthen the bond with his father, which is a good thing, but it might make you feel weird. Or maybe you'll be too tired to notice.

The younger child will probably have a very different personality than the first, which may catch you off guard. Some things are the same from kid to kid, but you might be surprised how little differences in temperament can have ripple effect when it comes to acquiring skills and reaching developmental milestones. Our first was (and is) extremely chatty, but didn't walk until 13 months, whereas our second didn't have much to say until he was two, but was walking at 11 months. We spent this past sunday afternoon in the emergency room, as young danger mouse had to be treated for an eye injury, while ever-cautious older brother sat patiently looking at magazines.
posted by whatnot at 2:57 PM on February 1, 2005

As the father of two little boys--5 and 3--I can definitely echo everyone else's thoughts...things will work out fine. Your oldest will definitely notice that he's got to share your attention, but you know what...? That's really not a bad thing for a three-year-old.

Right up front, just be careful of the small things--make it clear to the older boy that he doesn't have to share _you_, or even so much your _time_, just your attention. If you encourage him to participate in just hanging out and playing with the baby together, he should soon realize that he gets to spend just as much time with you as ever, but that now there's a new little entertainment center. (Just the beginning of their long shared fascination with poop and farts.)

Two quick points on handling the actual transition:
-- Look for good books to help get the older boy ready. We found a book called Baby Talk--where grandma tells a resentful older brother that he should understand the new baby best, since he used to talk that way just a little while ago, and he becomes a self-appointed translator for the baby--but there are a ton of good books like that out there.
-- Also, someone reminded us that it's much easier for the older sibling to meet his new little brother for the first time if Momma's not holding and adoring the baby. Just put the baby in a bassinet and wait till he's quiet or asleep. That way, big brother's first experience of looking at the baby can be shared with you, instead of seeing himself displaced. (I don't mean to read too much into this, like it's going to scar him for life--I'm just saying that that moment will be nicer for him that way. Aaand it can't hurt to get things started on the right foot.)

Once the younger brother's old enough to interact, you'll be amazed. Our boys are now best friends, and they entertain each other _constantly_. They wrestle, they repeat the same silly joke back and forth a million times, they stick up for each other when one gets in's pretty great. (Plus, they occupy each other--we have so much more time on our hands at home than we would with just one. Bonus!)

Yes, they have their occasional melt-downs, and they're developing into pretty classic older-sibling/younger-sibling personalities, but neither one can really imagine life without the other. (Just be prepared for the younger one to be a _much_ scrappier three-year-old than the first one is. A _lot_.)
posted by LairBob at 3:09 PM on February 1, 2005

(P.S. Having enough love and affection to go 'round is the least of your worries. Time? Sometimes. Patience? Dear god, yes. Love, though? No problem.)
posted by LairBob at 3:15 PM on February 1, 2005

Thank you everyone for your advice. I know my question is somewhat simplistic, but the entire experience of siblings is completely alien to our concept of family. We can't fit it into our experience, so we fret about the unknown.
posted by bibliowench at 4:25 PM on February 1, 2005

They'll love each other and they'll hate each other. My siblings and I did all of those things. The older will probably pin down the younger and fart on his head. Take it with a grain of salt. I worked with a fellow with 5 kids. He and his wife made a point of taking one child out each month on a special outing just for one on one face time.
posted by plinth at 4:57 PM on February 1, 2005

If you're delivering in a hospital, some have great prebirth programs for older siblings.

We had a three-year-old boy already with twin girls on the way. Emphasis in the program was being 'the older brother/sister', but with some responsibility to help mom and dad his little siblings.

It was helpful and the first couple years went really well as long as we kept in mind that time spent with the twins was time not spent with the eldest.

I'd often occupy him, take him outside and play catch, etc., while mom nursed.
And when we all ate dinner together (once the twins stopped nursing), we'd always find a way to alternate our attention (one day mom, one day dad) on eldest boy or each of the twins.

Rules we followed:
1) Never compare. 'Why can't you be more like (lil sib)?'
2) Never say who's your favorite (you'll have a favorite). ALWAYS say 'I love you all the same'.
3) If big sib starts regressing (which happens), don't get upset, At. ALL. Spend more time with him.

You already know how your children change your life, for good. Once your older sibling gets to socializing age (4.5 - 5 years) you can focus on fair or unfair (if he were to fart on lil sib's head as plinth says). Before then it's all about showing the love for all of them.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:31 PM on February 1, 2005

Oh, wow...nj_subgenius brings up a great point. No matter how fair you try to be, totally prepare yourself for the older sibling to regress. Don't be surprised when he slides on potty-training, "big boy" helpful behavior...any given thing on any given day.

It'll probably pass relatively quickly, but it's definitely an understandable reaction--some part of him will almost certainly need to test you, and find out how your love really works.

It's also probably small potatoes, compared to what they're going to put us all through when they hit their teens, but it's definitely something to get a nice, deep breath prepared for.
posted by LairBob at 5:50 PM on February 1, 2005

Wow, I really hit the trifecta. I am a twin and the youngest, or second youngest of 5, AND I worked for a summer in a rare book library.

First of all, two years is a great spread. There will be resentment, but it will work itself out. (According to family lore, which is pretty worthless in my family, my oldest sister tried to flush her baby brother down the toilet the day he came home; she even got him into the bathroom before mom stopped her. 45 years later, they are the best of friends.)

I would start talking about the zygote now-- give him a silly name (Ziggy?) and try to get your son excited. Explain to him/her beforehand that it's natural to be jealous, but stress that he will be glad later on. When the baby is born, try to involve the older son. Try to avoid fussing over one kid at a time. Tag parenting works wonders.

I think the cardinal rule of parenting is to not compare your children. Children live to frustrate your expectations. Be careful not to draw lessons. I was always told "David, you're the patient one" which made me feel like crap when I wanted to throttle my twin. My brother was good at math; I was good
at art. Just let them figure out what is best for them. Let them define themselves.

I think it's great that you are concerned, but keep faith that it will work out in the end. There's always a bit of rivalry, but that's not the end of the world. I live with an only child. He's great and I have no regrets. But there is a real benefit to having siblings, and I see that my experience was richer, albeit more complicated. Children with siblings, and especially twins, learn to compromise, learn to wait for attention, and learn to carve out their own identities. It's tough, but the benefits far outweigh the strains.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:31 PM on February 1, 2005

If anything, you're doing the right thing because when your kids grow up, they can complain about you to each other. Remember, they're the ones picking out your retirement; better for them to have someone to share the burden with!

Seriously, though, my brother and I may be two years apart, but we consider each other as twins. I'd be really pissed if my parents raised me as an only, because he's really a best friend and I couldn't imagine life without him.

Relax! Be fair, and be happy, and they'll learn from your example.
posted by mimi at 9:05 PM on February 1, 2005

I have a 23 month old and a 3 week old. While my experience is very limited in this respect, I have observed that my oldest son will get upset faster and act out more than before his brother was born. We're not too worried about it though, as he is normally a very good natured kid. He's just going through a period of adjustment.

Our fuses have become shorter however, and we've been more likely to get angry with our oldest than before. Last night we made an effort not to lose it and were rewarded with a fun night with our toddler.
posted by smcniven at 6:00 AM on February 2, 2005

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