We all know that if you’re married and have children, your kids are watching you and your spouse. They’re learning about how you fight, how you cooperate, and how you show your love for one another. That’s hugely important in the development of their ideas of a healthy relationship.
But for all my kids’ hours and years with each other, I can’t help but hope they are also learning a lot about marriage from their sibling relationships. Here’s how:
1. How to Fight
Boy, do they get practice with this one! Disagreements are a part of life and a part of every intimate relationship. Knowing how to resolve arguments kindly and lovingly will be critical to their future happiness, so I try to let my kids “own” their conflicts as much as possible. This means teaching them how to work through it themselves instead of acting as judge to determine offenders and victims.
If sister doesn’t like something brother is doing, she should tell him, not me. Brother should then answer her directly instead of saying, “But, Mom, she did it first!” Talking it out and finding a compromise, respectfully and without name-calling or insults, is key to repairing and strengthening any relationship.
2. It’s Not All About You
Seething about who last picked up whose dirty socks or keeping score of your spouse’s offenses against you doesn’t do anything to strengthen a marriage. To avoid these pitfalls, we’re working to teach our kids that everyone’s needs matter and that we are a team rather than a never-ending score sheet of whether or not things are “fair.” Sometimes I’m in one child’s classroom more than the other’s because that’s just how my schedule is right now. Sometimes one child got extra TV because he was sick. Sometimes the littlest one just needs more attention, and sometimes the oldest is allowed to do something the others cannot. That’s just the way it is, and in a family (or a marriage), we all have to roll with the ups and downs and look at the big picture.
3. Be There
It’s been said, quite rightly, that your relationship with a sibling is the longest in your life, the only one that carries you from childhood all the way to old age. There’s a quiet comfort in this for a child—the idea that some people are just not going anywhere. As kids, we can’t opt out of the household or the relationship when we’re mad at our siblings. We stay, and again and again, we work it out. Through years of togetherness, siblings learn what it’s like to simply know, “This is my person. We are here for each other.” And, hopefully, they learn to be that person, and eventually that spouse, who can be counted on.
4. Protect Each Other
Every child knows that they are entitled to tease their siblings. It’s part of the natural order of things, right? But I also want my kids to learn the difference between good, affectionate fun among siblings and nastiness toward one of their own from an outsider, and I see from their discussions about school that they are watching out for each other on a daily basis. Circle those wagons against the world, kids. My hope is that, if they marry someday, they’ll remember this before they bad-mouth their spouse to their friends instead of working through it at home. A family is a team, and so is a married couple.
5. Push Each Other
It was my oldest sister who taught me to ride a two-wheeler and to go underwater when I was learning to swim. In my house now, it’s my big kids who are encouraging their little sister to ride the scary amusement park ride and helping her sound out words as she learns to read. Siblings have a natural way of driving each other to do more, and that’s something we can bring to marriage, too. When we aren’t sure about taking a risk at work or our confidence in our own parenting is faltering, supportive spouses push each other gently. We make it safe to keep going because we provide a soft place to fall when we fail and then try again.
6. Pitch In
All of our kids—sons and daughters both—are required to wash dishes and sweep floors, and as they get bigger, they’ll all mow our lawn and shovel snow. We do these things as a family because families work together. For now, they still have to be told when they need to do these things, but we’re working toward the end goal: adults who will be equal partners and who will see what needs to be done and willingly pitch in to get it accomplished.
7. Have Fun Together
Kids play, kids dance, kids laugh. It’s how brothers and sisters bond with each other. Grown-ups too! You’re not just roommates, you’re not just partners, and you’re not just co-parents. I hope my kids will remember how to enjoy some fun with those they love, and not always take life so seriously. What if, every once in a while, marriage could be as much fun as childhood?
I can’t be sure, of course, that my kids will ever get married. But my hope is that they will be lucky enough to have relationships at least as close as the ones they have with their siblings, and that this first friendship, with all its warts and imperfections, will help prepare them for a happy life.