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Should Moms Interfere with Sibling Play?

Q. My 2-year-old spends a lot of time interacting with my 4-1/2-year-old son and his friends. While they generally play together well, there are times when the 4-year-olds engage in play activities that are hard for my 2-year-old to do, such as climbing jungle gyms. My toddler does, however, love to play tag with his older brother. Should I find more games like that for them to play together?

A. Congratulations! Given that sibling rivalry is one of the biggest challenges parents face, especially in the early years, you have obviously done something very right if you have boys two years apart who want to play together. And your 4-year-old is willing to include his younger brother in play with his friends? Keep it up: You've definitely got some sibling magic going on.

What to Play?

And don't worry about finding activities your boys can do together; there are plenty of choices. By age 2, most young children are very involved in the world of pretend and can start to develop stories with their siblings using props, such as:

  • dress-up clothes
  • action figures
  • stuffed animals
  • building blocks

Look for activities that you can easily modify to meet both your 2-year-old's and 4-year-old's different skill levels, like a backyard obstacle course with challenges of varying difficulty. (For example, your older son can climb over a box, while your younger son runs around it.)

Other outdoor pastimes, such as ball-kicking and bike-riding (one child can be on training wheels while another is on a tricycle), may also be great fun for them.

Allow Big-Kid Alone Time

As much as your boys seem to enjoy playing together, keep in mind that it's important to let your older son choose not to play with his younger sibling sometimes. Always having to include a sibling can build resentment and ultimately backfire, as the older sibling often ends up feeling like the younger one is an intrusion and a "pain." It's both fair and reasonable to give your older child some time to spend with his friends without his brother.

And it's equally important for your younger son to have time to play with kids his own age. As much as he may enjoy playing with the older guys, the dynamics are simply different when you are the younger, smaller playmate. He is probably more of a follower in these play situations, and it's likely that his needs and interests are not always at the forefront of their play. Interacting with his peers gives him a chance to feel comfortable playing with kids his own age. It also helps him learn how to negotiate, cooperate, and share in a play environment with his peers where there is a more shared balance of power.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.