They had brought the new baby home from the hospital just a few days earlier. Friends and relatives had been by to see him, and the pile of baby presents on the dining-room table had grown steadily. After an exhausting morning, Mom once again picked up the fussy infant and rocked him, trying to quiet him. The baby’s toddler sister dragged her blanket over to her mother’s chair. “Take baby back now, Mommy,” she said with an exasperated voice. “He go bye-bye now.”
To this toddler, the new baby had intruded long enough! Her schedule had been upset, her parents were distracted and exhausted, and she was no longer the center of attention. Hers was the typical reaction of an older sibling.
A newborn will be the focus of attention in any home. This is especially true for a first child. The exhausted parents struggle to make the many adjustments and grow in confidence in caring for a baby. I have always thought that the first child was the hardest, because parents don’t know what they’re doing, and they either get too much advice or not enough.
No child should remain the center of attention in the family for very long. Children must learn early in life that they are not the center of the universe. This is the first step in leading them away from a self-centered life toward one that is intent on serving others.
The early childhood years are important. During this time the seeds of character are beginning to develop. Personality qualities such as patience, thoughtfulness, gentleness, and caring begin to develop at this age.
Here are practical tips for relieving some of the natural rivalry between siblings and helping them to develop an appreciation for one another.
1. Prepare for the homecoming. When a new baby is due soon, begin preparing an older child for the baby’s arrival. Bolster your older child’s self-esteem often. Give him or her a positive vision for what a good older sibling he or she will be. Say, “You are going to be the best big brother this little baby could ever have. I am so proud of you.” Or, “This new baby is so lucky to have you for a sister. You are going to be able to teach him so many things.”
Don’t be shocked when the new baby is a disappointment to an older child. After all, that little baby isn’t much fun to play with. Remind the older child that the baby will grow up soon, and then they can run all over and play together.
2. Make bringing the new baby home special. When John and I brought each of our five children home, we laid the new baby on the couch and had family members put their hands on the infant as we prayed. In prayer we gave back to the Lord this very special child He had given us. We asked God to keep the child safe and we asked that he or she would grow to love the Lord. Then we asked the Lord to help us learn how to be good parents, brothers, or sisters for the new member of our family.
When worries about the baby would arise, this family dedication time was important to me. I held in my mind the picture of our family giving this child back to the Lord. It helped me remember whose child he or she was.
3. Have the baby bring a gift to the siblings at home. Before I went to the hospital to have a baby, I bought gifts for each older child and wrapped them. These were gifts from the new baby to the brothers and sisters at home. The gifts stayed in the car trunk until the day the baby and I came home. Then I handed each sibling a note of love and a gift from the new brother or sister.
4. Put together an activity box for the older children. Older siblings often misbehave when Mom or Dad is taking care of the new baby. A special activity box can help at those times. Fill a plastic box with markers, stickers, paper, and other tools for creativity, and keep it in a specific place. This is the “big boy” or “big girl” box, and it comes out only when Mommy is busy with the new baby. A big brother or sister is the only one who can have this special box.
Allison was two when John was born, and she got a new doll from her brother. When I nursed John, she would often get her “baby” out and “nurse” it. We talked about what a great mother she was going to be one day and what a good big sister she was now to be so patient while Mommy took care of John. At least her baby didn’t fuss!
5. Take the older children on outings all by themselves. Older children resent the time a baby takes, but special outings with Mom or Dad can lessen the feelings. Leave the baby with a sitter and take the older child out for ice cream. Take him to a playground or a fast food restaurant. Let him stay up to watch an appropriate video with you. This doesn’t completely solve the problem, but when those times of resentment come and the older child expresses his negative feelings, remind him of your special dates with him alone.
6. Set clear standards of behavior during the early years. Just as the young child wanted her mommy to take the new baby back, we all want others to make changes so that our lifestyles are a little more comfortable—so that our own desires will be satisfied. We are basically self-centered, and we will never completely get over it this side of heaven. When the standards of acceptable behavior are clear to our young children, they will know how we expect them to relate to one another. Be clear, firm, and consistent with discipline.
7. Teach young children to wait. Teaching a child to wait for attention is no fun. It’s tough on the parents and it’s tough on the child. She won’t like it. She may fuss or throw a temper tantrum, but she must learn to wait. God will use a new baby as an instrument to help us teach our younger children they must wait for Mommy’s attention.
We all want immediate satisfaction of our needs. Learning at a young age to wait is a good thing. So when you hear wails of protest from your child—that she dislikes the new baby because you can’t take care of her needs first—take heart. Your child is only learning that the world doesn’t revolve around her. That’s a good thing!
8. Teach young children to take turns and share. It always happens. There’s a toy no one has wanted to play with and then someone finds it and everyone wants it at the same time. The typical struggle ensues. As far as I’m concerned, a timer with a bell is essential in homes with young children. Give each child a set time to play with the toy over which they are lighting. One child can have it until the bell rings, and then it’s another child’s turn.
The debate over who gets to sit next to the window on a three-minute car ride can begin a sibling war. Who would ever imagine something so trivial can be so disruptive? Yet, in nearly every family, such debate can cause real trouble.
A friend of mine solved this dilemma by assigning one child all the odd-numbered days. Her other child got the even days. On a child’s assigned day, he or she got first choice at everything all day long. This simple system has changed their family life! (If you have more than two children, assign one child every third or fourth day. On that day he or she gets first choice of everything.)
9. Teach children to respect other people’s property. Simply put: do not permit disrespect—not of parents, of those in authority, or of siblings. Family is the place where we stick up for one another. We will not always agree, but we must learn to disagree politely.
Teach your children to respect and care for each other’s toys. The one who took the soccer ball out and forgot to bring it in should go get it—even if it is dark, even if he or she doesn’t want to. Toddlers are too young to understand the difference between their property and that of big brothers and sisters. To avoid conflict, put big kids’ toys out of the reach of destructive toddlers.
10. Teach children to look out for each other. When a younger child falls on the playground, train the older ones to run to him, pick him up, and give him a hug. As they get older, expect them to stand up for each other.
Eugenia is two years younger than her brother. When they were in elementary school, another boy began to call Eugenia names and pull at her clothes. Eugenia told her big brother and he took the troublemaker aside and said, “That’s my sister you are bothering. Don’t you ever, ever bug her again.”
Our message to our kids must be, “Brothers and sisters are our greatest treasures. Take care of them. Stand up for them.”
This idea is most easily communicated when your children are young. In the middle years, they may view each other more like a chronic embarrassment, or an impossible burden, than a great treasure.
Copyright 2012 by Susan Yates. All rights reserved.