Growing up, I was the baby of my family—and my older brother made me aware of every one of the 32 months that separated us. After a game of Monopoly, I'd count my money, giving each bill equal weight, and declare, "I have 10 dollars." My brother would grab the stack and say, "That's wrong. I'll count it for you." Although he didn't say outright that I was stupid, even a preschooler can read between the lines.
While my brother and I are good friends now, I can see this pattern repeating with my own kids. After watching a football game, my 6-year-old son announced, "In my defense, the Broncos are the best team ever!"
"What do you mean, 'in my defense'?" asked my 9-year-old daughter, as if she'd never heard a lamer statement. "You mean in your opinion." I could see the dejection in my son's eyes—and remembered the feeling all too well.
"Our children form their image of who they are from the words they hear—and words that come from an older sibling often have more credibility than those from parents," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Plus, even very young kids pick up on nonverbal cues, like body language and facial expressions. While your youngest feels inadequate compared with her older sibling, your firstborn probably wonders if you love her as much as you love the little one, who requires more hands-on attention. It's enough to make you want to separate the kids until college.
But don't lock their doors just yet. That overly critical firstborn can be taught to be tactful, her younger sibling can learn to channel envy into determination—and you can help each child feel appreciated. These common sibling challenges can be reframed as opportunities for children to develop emotional and social skills that will help them value both themselves and others.
One solution is to add some games of chance into the mix (board games such as Chutes and Ladders or card games like War), at which everyone will win and lose sometimes. You can also encourage your children to play kids-against-grown-ups and cooperative games, which force them to work together. Another strategy that Dr. Borba recommends is similar to a handicap in golf: Alter the rules to level the playing field. When my son joins his older sister and me in a match of the wordfinding game Boggle, for example, he's allowed to sound out words and have them count—even if they aren't spelled correctly. In a game of basketball, you could let the little one travel or take more shots.
Although your older one may balk about that double standard, you'll be doing him a serious favor: teaching him to develop empathy. So help your big kid remember what it feels like to be on the losing side. Ask him to look at his sister's face when she's lost for the umpteenth time and guess what she's feeling. Remind him that competition is more fun if it's evenly matched (which is different from letting his opponent win).
Since handling defeat is a critical life skill (and you don't want your kid showing up at a playdate demanding a handicap), sometimes it's okay to let your youngest play a game she's destined to lose. Just do some prep work, says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). If she's learning checkers and wants to play a more experienced big brother, tell her to remember that she has to be a good sport. Say, "Your brother is probably going to win because he's had more years to practice. Someday when you're a bit older, you'll be able to play that well too," advises Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
It's time to teach the fine art of diplomacy: distinguishing what's appropriate to say and what's not. If your older child's comment is obviously hurtful ("That was stupid!"), tell her, "We don't talk to each other that way." If her words are fine but her tone and body language need work (she screamed, "Your shoes are on the wrong feet!" while throwing up her hands), ask her to say the same thing but in a kind voice, suggests Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Instead of telling her what not to say, give her a repertoire of phrases—such as "Good try!"—to use. Suggest that she say one nice thing first before pointing out what's wrong. Be sure to articulate the positive yourself, adds Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Narberth, Pennsylvania. Rather than telling your older kid, "You're being mean to your brother," you can point out, "It looks like you're trying to help your brother with his letters" before you discuss how she could phrase her criticism differently.
Although it can be tempting to downplay your elder kid's achievements in order to preserve your younger one's feelings, that backfires in two ways. First, it's unfair to the older one, who deserves to feel good about his accomplishments. Second, it robs the younger one of the opportunity to see what's possible with hard work. So if your firstborn has been taking gymnastics and wants to demonstrate his routine, let him put on a show for the family. Give him the kudos he's earned, and emphasize the effort that went into his progress. The younger one will get the message that it's not that his big brother has special powers but rather that he's had more practice. What if your little kid tries to do a handstand like Big Bro and ends up on his head—and in tears? "You can ask him, 'Do you want to be able to do a handstand? Then let's work on that,' " suggests Dr. Goldenthal, author of Beyond Sibling Rivalry.
Ask your older child to help out with your younger one. It'll make her feel like a valuable member of the family and strengthen their sibling bond. To reduce her evening chore load, Allison Sullivan began asking one of her 9-year-old twins to read a bedtime story to their 6-year-old sister. The routine has made the twins feel more tender toward their little sister, says the Metuchen, New Jersey, mom, and the 6-yearold loves the one-on-one time. A similar thing happened when Dr. Kennedy-Moore started allowing her then 10-year-old daughter to babysit for her 7-year-old brother for an hour so she could get some work done in the house. Since it was an "extra" job, she paid her daughter for the service—provided her son reported that he'd had fun. "This motivated her to be sweet to him. She was proud when he had a good time," explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "It also set the precedent that they could enjoy each other's company."
To make your big kid feel special, emphasize what the two of you can do by yourselves now, like ice-skate or eat at a nice restaurant, suggests Dr. Goldenthal. Say to her, "I'm glad you're finally at the age when we can do this together." When you're in the car listening to a song she likes, start a conversation about the lyrics ("What do you think Taylor Swift means by 'loving you was red'?"). This should help make up for her annoyance when certain activities are off-limits because the little one can't do them. At the same time, praise your little kid when he acts more grown-up and give him opportunities to feel that way, such as assigning him chores he can complete, like unloading silverware from the dishwasher.
Most important, look for ways to make each child feel unique. Karen Smith's three sons frequently ask her, "Am I your favorite?" (usually in front of their siblings). "I try to redirect the question by naming various little things I love about each of them," says the Elkhart, Indiana, mom. "I'll say something like, 'Graham, one of the things that I love about you is how you wake me in the morning by kissing my nose. Miles, I love how you make me laugh with your goofy dancing, and Simon, I love the voices you make when you read out loud.' "
Make sure your comments, like hers, are based on behaviors rather than labels (like "I love how you're my little athlete") or something your child has to work for ("I love how you get straight A's on your report card").
If one kid is always annoying the other, help the tauntee (who may be younger or older) find a new way to respond. Dr. Kennedy-Moore's son had a habit of sneaking up on his sister, grabbing her dolls, and running around the house with them, prompting both Mom and Sis to chase after him. Dr. Kennedy-Moore finally chose a different approach. "I coached my daughter to say to her brother, 'I didn't know you were interested in dolls. Would you like to play with them with me?' before he had a chance to take off with them." Once the girl did that, her brother laughed and never pulled the stunt again—and her self-image changed from victim to victor.
Keep in mind that a sibling relationship offers the ideal practice environment for negotiating with peers, defending one's turf—and shrugging things off. And if you take advantage of teachable moments, you'll see glimmers of hope. Just days after my daughter pounced on my son for his misuse of the word defense, my son came home from karate class bursting with pride at having earned his yellow belt. Of course, it wasn't a "real" yellow belt; it was the littlekid-division equivalent (the karate class's version of a handicap!). I could see that my daughter was about to set the record straight. But before I could shoot her a look I heard her say, "That's really cool! Congratulations." It was one of those rare moments when I was glad I hadn't decided to separate them until college.