How to End Sibling Rivalry Like a Christian
Sibling friendship is a countercultural notion. TV shows, movies, and books rarely portray siblings as allies. Sibling rivalry has been elevated from an occasional challenge to the cultural norm.
Under this norm, parents function as referees and judges—breaking up fights, assigning blame, and steering siblings to leave each other alone. But the Bible indicates that siblinghood (both spiritual and physical) consists of more than simply tolerating each other.
I’ve been pondering Proverbs 18:24: “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” True friendship is a gift of the rarest kind. When the writer of Proverbs wants us to conceive of the deepest form of friendship, he says, in essence, “Imagine a depth of friendship that exceeds even that between siblings.” He points to siblinghood as the gold standard.
I came to parenthood with no vision for my children to be friends. I grew up the only girl among four brothers, and “adversarial” does not come close to capturing the dynamic among us. Our fights explored the full range of verbal, physical, and psychological aggression. We loved each other, but we didn’t really learn to like each other until later in life.
By contrast, my husband has called his sister, Emily, his best friend for his whole life. At first, I thought he must be lying. But there was evidence—pictures of them holding hands (holding hands!) on a trip to Disney as teenagers, full-body hugging at a family gathering, and heading to a dance together her senior year when she didn’t have a date.
I wanted to scoff, to say they were a statistical anomaly. But I also wanted to hope: What if Jeff and I could raise our four kids to be best friends? Despite the overwhelming consensus that it couldn’t be done, we began crafting a plan to try. We consulted Jeff’s parents. We quizzed older parents whose kids were friends. We scoured parenting books. And we assembled a handful of principles to guide us:
No favorites. Sibling rivalry can grow from a perception (right or wrong) that one child is more favored than another by Mom and Dad. We told the kids they were each our favorites in unique ways. We did not love them equally, but uniquely with equal intensity.
No teasing. This one was hard for me. I had grown up with sarcasm and teasing, and I was world class at both. By not allowing them, our home became a place where the kids felt safe from the verbal aggression that was the norm elsewhere. Instead, we prioritized affirmation, setting aside times to verbalize what we genuinely liked about each other.
Frequent reminders. When conflict arose, we reminded them, “Your sibling is your best friend.” When peace reigned, we reminded them, too. We repeated what we wanted to be true between them until it became what they expected to be true.
Together versus apart. Rather than separate fighters, we pushed them closer, assigning them a shared consequence (like a chore) to do together. It was not our job to “break it up” but to “bring it together.” If conflict continued, we canceled outside activities. Until they could get along with their best friend at home, outside friends could wait.
Quantity time. Because deep friendship takes root in shared experiences, we spent countless hours of time together as a family. While we recognized the gift of outside friends and activities, we didn’t let either monopolize our kids’ free time. Their best friend from soccer would be a distant memory in 30 years, but the best friends they shared a last name with would be in their lives forever.
Why do we discount the vision of our kids as each others’ dearest friends? Why do we settle for rivalry? Frankly, as a parent, it’s easier to be a referee than a reconciler. It’s easier to separate than to shepherd—at least in the short-term.
But as I witness the deep friendship that has grown between my kids, I affirm that the long-term benefit was worth the effort. A friend who sticks closer than a brother is a rare gem. A sibling who is a best friend is a treasure for a lifetime. And a Christian family filled with siblings who are friends bears compelling testimony to the gospel of peace.