How In The World Does An Only Child Parent Siblings?

As a mom, I do some things quite well. And then there’s this.

by Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken
Originally Published: 
A boy in a green shirt and grey shorts and a girl in a light blue shirt and green skirt playing on a...
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There are some things I think I do well as a mother. I throw lovely, thoughtful birthday parties for my children, no matter how obscure or specific their desired theme.

I can read their silences, body language, and facial expressions to suss out when it’s been a hard day at school, a sickness is about to descend, or a mess has been made in another room and they’re trying to hide it from me.

I know what to say and do to help mend a bruised knee, a deflated ego, or a hurting heart.

And here is something I am less good at: dealing with the seemingly endless parade of squabbles and spats that arise between my two children.

The only child pass

As an only child—and a very happy, content one at that—there are things that happen on an average day between siblings that are simply beyond my comprehension. I think I deserve a pass for this one. It’s called the “Only Child Pass,” and it should get me out of jail for free every time they are poking at each other in the backseat of the car and I feel myself flush with a white hot annoyance that makes me want to scream and pull my hair.

I don’t understand why they constantly have to touch each other. I don’t know why the ancient puzzle that they forgot we even owned but one of them just decided to play with automatically becomes the only thing the other one wants in the world. I don’t understand how it’s unfair that they both had precisely thirty minutes of video game time. Math was never my best subject, but I’m pretty sure that’s the very definition of fair.

Please know that I undertook the task of parenting multiple children with my eyes wide open to my inherent limitations. I loved my childhood and my peaceful, loving family of three. I never longed for a sibling. After all, how can you miss something you’ve never had?

But my husband is one of four and felt strongly about giving our first son the experience of having a sibling. I loved pregnancy and motherhood and felt like I had more to give, so we decided to have another baby. Before we made that life-altering decision, I gave it an awful lot of thought.

And all that time, worry germinated inside me.

How to parent siblings

How in the world am I supposed to parent siblings (both philosophically and logistically) when I have absolutely no experience to draw from?

Unlike many people who grew up with brothers and sisters, I can’t rifle through my childhood memories for examples of how my parents (for better or worse) handled the little things like skirmishes over toys and attention or more significant issues like sibling rivalry and favoritism. I am starting from scratch, so to speak, and constantly asking myself some tough questions:

  • How do I parent them both individualistically and thoughtfully?
  • How do I divide my attention fairly between two people who need so much from me?
  • How do I solve sibling fights in a fair and just way?
  • How much do I get involved in their brotherhood? How much do I let them figure out for themselves?
  • How do I encourage the respectful and loving dynamic that will blossom into a true bond, such that they can count on one another for the rest of their lives?

I am awestruck by their sibling bond

I’m still in the weeds of it, shepherding an eleven-year-old and seven-year-old through all of this every day, but the answer to those questions, as with so much else of parenting, seems to be… you just do it.

I try to see my boys clearly and honestly for precisely who they are as individuals. They have very different personalities, which means they need different things from me. I have to believe that I can be enough for both of them.

I try to encourage their deep and abiding love for one another, even in the face of typical disagreements that arise in their relationship.

I have to trust them, as well as the tone we set in our house. We can have bad days and be good people. We can hurt one another, and we can repair. We are a family, and we can always find our way home to each other.

We can (dear universe, please) learn to keep our hands to ourselves in the backseat of the car.

Parenting siblings as an only child has baffled me, infuriated me, and confused me. It has also delighted me. I sit back in awestruck wonder at both their incessant squabbling and tender bond. Their sibling relationship is a constant source of fascination, having no experience of it myself.

I relish that no matter what battles may rage in the course of the day, the evening always finds them reconciled. They practice all the extremes of love on one another—loyalty, jealousy, devotion, annoyance, compassion, and forgiveness.

I can’t help but think how strong and ready those little hearts will be for other love, having been so well-used in childhood.

Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken is a writer based in Upstate New York. Her work has appeared in the award-winning magazine The Beekman 1802 Almanac, Mini City Magazine and Jennifer has also been featured on Design Mom and Cup of Jo. She is happiest when with her family, watching British television, hunting for vintage treasures, or fastidiously organizing any mess. You can learn more at, or on Instagram @wecangohomeagain.

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