Q: I have two sons, aged 3 and 5. While the older boy clearly loves his younger brother, he also resents having to share his toys with him. When he has friends over, they don’t want to let their younger brother play with them. He also gets frustrated that his little brother isn’t at the same maturity level as he is, and doesn’t want the same things. How can I help foster strong sibling bonds between them? I don’t want them to resent each other as they get older.
A: Some recommended reading on this subject is Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber. It’s a really fantastic resource for addressing sibling interactions, and teaching them to respect each other while addressing competition and conflict.
I would recommend adding more structure and rules to their interactions. It’s very important for kids to have some areas of their life where they can exert control and ownership.
A lot of parents make a battle out of little control issues, such as what their kids are allowed to wear to school today (you can’t wear that, it doesn’t match!) Not allowing your child to have control over their life will often cause them to act out and dig their heels in over small things. And who wants getting dressed in the morning to become a tantrum that makes everybody late?
It’s the same with toys and other personal possessions. Is a toy really yours if you have to share it with your little brother whenever he asks for it? It’s not really reciprocal sharing either, as toys for a child two years younger likely aren’t as interesting to your older son. So he has to share all the good stuff with his little brother, while he doesn’t get anything out of borrowing his brother’s toys. In his eyes, his little brother clearly has the better end of the sharing deal. And letting others control his toys will cause power struggle issues. He may start lashing out at his brother, hiding toys, and digging his heels in over other little things as a way to get the power back.
You need to give your children control over some amount of their possessions. Toys that are given to just one child as a gift, and especially toys that they purchased themselves with their own money, should be entirely owned by them. They can be encouraged and rewarded for sharing, but they shouldn’t be punished for keeping them to themselves. You might do something like privately say “Since you don’t play with that toy much anymore, it would be nice of you to let your brother play with it. However, it’s perfectly OK if you don’t want to.” When they do share something, praise them. Say “That’s so nice of you to let your brother play with your train set! I’m really proud of you for sharing!”
That’s not to say they should never be expected or required to share either! There should also be communal toys (say, the gaming console, the backyard swing set, the board games, etc.) When those toys are given to the boys, it should be clear that they are a family gift.
It’s also important that the toys each sibling has are perceived to be fair and equal in value. It’s not fair if older brother’s personal toy given for the holidays is a new Nintendo Switch and younger brother’s personal toy is a puzzle. There is a frequent problem in families where one child may be a relative’s favorite, and get much more elaborate and expensive toys than their siblings. If you can’t curb that behavior at the source, make sure that the other siblings have equally awesome toys too.
The issue with playing together is similar. When I was a child, my neighbor (and best friend) had a younger brother. His mother would always send him over to play with us when we hung out. The issue was that his brother was two years younger than himself, and four years younger than me! He was in a very different developmental stage than us, and we would have to cater our playing to something that would keep him happy. We wanted the time to spend on our own and play our big-kid games, not babysit! Sure, we would all play together sometimes, but it wasn’t fair that we were always expected to play together. It certainly bred sibling resentment between them, as my friend wasn’t “allowed” to have his own friends and play time.
Like with toys, there should be clear expectations for when your kids have playtime with their own friends, and when they are expected to allow their siblings to participate. Perhaps the time before dinner is just for the friends, and the time after dinner is community play time, where everyone is included. If your older son has clear expectations for when he is allowed to have control and ownership over his friendship, and when he must allow his younger brother to participate, it will help him to curb his feelings of resentment. And likewise, you can take the older kids aside and give them positive attention when they do include the younger one– thank them for letting the younger sibling play their game too. Let them know how much the younger one appreciates it.
By seeing his little brother as someone who he can choose to share and play with rather than someone he is forced to play with, he will have no reason to feel resentful or jealous. Rather, he will have the space to see himself as a more mature, mentor figure who can enjoy choosing to share his friends and toys with him.