As They Get Older
- Stay out of it. When it comes to older kids, unless something dangerous is happening, don't jump in the middle of an argument or get worked up when they fight. "When parents get involved, it makes fighting more exciting to the kids, and they may use it as a way to get your attention," cautions Dr. Brazelton. Plus, taking sides or jumping to one child's defense can lead to resentment. Letting them solve problems and compromise teaches them valuable life skills.
- Boast about their good behavior. Instead of giving your children attention when they're bopping each other with Mega Bloks, do it when they're good. "Praise them when they work out a conflict or are sharing, and point out how good it is that they have managed on their own," says Kerry Caverly, an early childhood expert at the Parents as Teachers National Center. Kids love positive reinforcement, so they may keep it up in hopes of getting more.
- Don't separate them. "A lot of parents are so concerned about minimizing conflict between their kids that they tend to keep a toddler away from an infant, get them involved in different activities, or give them separate bedrooms," says Kramer. "These things may subtly give kids the message that it's not important for them to develop a strong relationship." Instead, make sure to tell your kids that their bond is special and find things they enjoy doing together.
- Lose the labels. You probably know that you shouldn't compare or label your kids, but make sure others (from strangers to grandparents) don't do it either. For example, you call one of your kids "artistic" or "athletic." "This may induce competition, because it puts a value on being artistic or athletic and makes a child think he's not as valuable as his brother if he's not that way," explains Caverly.
- Carve out time for each kid. With busy families and lives, it's easy for a younger child to constantly trail along to an older one's activities. This can lead to resentment if the little one thinks the world revolves around his big brother or sister. "Make time to do something special with each child," says Caverly. And when you are, say, watching your firstborn play soccer, make your youngest feel important by designating him the game photographer.
- Remember that fair doesn't always mean equal. "As a parent, you can't treat your children equally because they're different people," says Caverly. For example, one child may respond to being disciplined with a time-out, while another responds just from hearing you raise your voice. You have to use what works for each. This also goes for when you're taking one child out and not the other. For example, even if you're taking your younger child to the doctor, the older one may be jealous at not having you to herself. Explain that today her sister needs to go to the doctor and that another day she will. If kids feel there is a reason for being treated differently and that it's justified, you'll stir up less rivalry.
I'm happy to report that all my worrying about how my daughter would feel about a new baby and how well they'd get along turned out to be unnecessary. Yes, there are days when she will tackle my 2-year-old for touching her markers, or he'll throw an Elmo doll at her. But far more often, I'll find them laughing together, playing tag, and cuddling on the couch watching Dora. At least for now.