One of the things I'm most heartened by is that my eleven kids are not just siblings; they are a squad. While they each, of course, have their own friends outside of the family, they are truly best friends with each other, and they hang around together by choice quite a lot of the time. My daughter Christina recently got engaged, and the first thing she did was ask all five of her sisters to be her maids of honor. I can't say that I've ever seen five maids of honor in a wedding, but her sisters are her five closest friends, and I'm sure they will remain that way for the rest of their lives.
Recently, several of my kids have told me that when they spend time with some of their friends' families, they see nonstop bickering and squabbling, and it makes them not only really uncomfortable to be there, but it also very sad for the whole family because it could be so much better! We don't have a perfect family (because that doesn't exist), and of course we get in arguments about various things, we sometimes unintentionally hurt each other, and we all make mistakes, but we seem to have worked out a system where things get resolved, and rivalry is rare. I often get asked about this, so I thought I would share with you some of the foundational principles of our family in the hopes that you might find something helpful for your own family (or your future family!).
1. Stop sibling rivalry in its tracks.
Each child has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it's easy for one child to be jealous of another's athletic ability or artistic talent or knack for math or English or physical appearance or whatever. It's human nature to compare ourselves to others, to hone in on where they are better than us, and to become jealous and envious. Parents can unknowingly contribute to this by comparing their children to each other ("Why can't you be more like Suzy??"), which only fosters resentment. There's a reason that Envy is one of the seven deadly sins; it rips families apart.
A better path, one that has worked well for us, is to rally everyone together to cheer each other on, no matter how good or bad they might be at something. When my younger boys have a basketball game or swim meet, their sisters and older brothers make an effort to show up and be the cheering section for them. This is especially helpful when they lose the game or get beaten in the pool as there is a whole squad of supportive siblings there for support. When my daughters' band goes on tour, my sons go to as many shows as they are able to, and it means a lot to the girls to have their brothers out in the audience.
I remember having many private talks with frustrated children who couldn't understand why they couldn't do something as well as a particular sibling, and I would tell them that it's ok; they have other gifts that their sibling can't do as well. Like yeah, your brother is awesome at math and you have to work a little harder to get it, but you have a gift for writing, and he struggles with that. Instead of being jealous, maybe you could ask him for some help in math and in return offer him some writing tips. Work together. Pool your talents. Be a team. You can't have a football team made up of all quarterbacks!
My six daughters have learned to capitalize on each other's strengths in their band. Some have an easier time coming up with lyrics, while others do better with writing melodies. Some love making tracks, while others prefer to edit videos. Some are natural marketers, while others excel in organizational skills. Some of them like to design merch items, while others take the lead on putting together a book written collectively. Some write thousands of poems, while others prefer to paint, whether it's on a canvas or the mini-canvas of a fingernail. And on and on. It's an asset that they all have different strengths, and it gets them to their goals that much faster to focus on what each one brings to the table instead of resenting each other with petty jealousies.
Lauren and Dani after a long day
2. Learn to work through difficulties.
It's really easy to get in fights over petty little things and then let it escalate into giving each other the cold shoulder, sometimes indefinitely. It's far better to take a minute to cool off and then talk through things as rationally as possible. Don't leave until you can come to some sort of resolution. Mike and I have had so many sit downs with two feuding children and listened to each one tell their side of the story while the other one listened. Then we worked with them on understanding the difference between facts and feelings. Every person is entitled to their own feelings. I remember when I was a teenager, my parents went on a weekend retreat called Marriage Encounter, and one of the principles they brought back was that feelings are not right or wrong; they merely exist. Try to empathize with the other person's feelings. Being right is not worth destroying a relationship by pounding the other person into the ground with your "rightness". Sometimes people have to agree to disagree.
I have tried to teach my children to see the pain they are causing someone, think how they would feel in that situation, reflect on how they would hope that people would treat them in the same circumstance, and figure out how to make things right. Maybe they need to buy the other person a little treat, or help them with something they're struggling with or whatever. It's time consuming to sit down and help them work through these things, but it's a necessary skill set that will help them not only in the moment, but also in future relationships.
The "middle children" hanging out
3. Friends come and go; family is forever.
Countless families have adult siblings who haven't spoken to each other for decades, and if you ask them why, half the time they don't even remember. I think this is nothing short of tragic. Family can be such a source of fun, warmth, and deep friendship coming from shared roots and bloodlines. Why not make that a top priority?
Fun family time at the lake!
We've always taught our kids to have each other's backs. If someone outside of the family says or does anything to hurt one of them, the other siblings are right there to defend them. That didn't happen automatically; we had to work on that. It's hard to stand up to a friend if they hurt a sibling because it feels like you have to choose, but standing up for a sibling is always the right move. Bullies aren't good friends in the long run anyway!
My youngest three are their own squad
One thing that's made a huge difference for our family is an idea our daughter Katherine came up with several years ago. Whenever someone has a birthday, everyone goes around in a circle and tells either their favorite thing about that person or a favorite memory of something they did with that person. It's easy to take family for granted or feel unappreciated, so hearing each member of the family talk about fun times they had with you and the traits of yours that they appreciate really builds deep bonds of closeness. It's such a simple thing, but it's so much fun to hear what everyone has to say!
4. Stop the bullying
Bullying is unfortunately a natural thing for siblings to do. It's obviously not a good thing, but it seems to go with the territory. There is a difference between bullying and good-natured roasting; bullying leaves the victim shattered, while roasting elicits laughter. When you see or hear one child crossing the line into behavior that is really shattering to another, you have to jump in and stop it. Unfortunately, parents can't be everywhere and see everything, so things are going to happen that you won't know about, sometimes until years later, and sometimes those things can have long-lasting traumatizing effects. In those cases, I think all you can do is say, "I am so sorry. I didn't know that happened, but if I did, I absolutely would have stopped it." Sometimes adult children have to make peace with each other over things that happened many years prior, and sometimes it has to involve a therapist. That's ok. Get it fixed.
Prayer is a mother's most powerful tool. There's a saying, "The family that prays together stays together." Marriage and family life is hard enough to tackle on your own. Don't hesitate to ask for help from the Creator! I truly believe that raising the kids in the church and taking the time to teach them about the Faith has made a huge difference in our relationships with each other.
Lauren (right) at her Confirmation with big sister Amy as her sponsor
6. Encourage hanging out together
Because we have so many kids, there's never a shortage of people to hang out with. Now that a little over half of them are adults, it's fun for them to switch it up and hang out with different siblings at different times. Many times one of my older ones will call up one of my younger ones and say, "Hey! You wanna go get some ice cream?" Sometimes the middle children will go out and do something. Sometimes it's in pairs, sometimes it's in three's or four's. I love seeing how it strengthens the bonds between them!
Joey and Michael, my youngest and my oldest
7. Make family your top priority.
What you reap, you sow. If you have serious family problems right now, stop everything, and make a commitment to yourself to do everything in your power to fix them. You can't make other people do anything, but you can control your own behavior. Call a family meeting, and talk about how you want to work really hard to make things better, and try to get everyone else to commit to the same. Talk about what the usual trigger points are, and resolve to react differently to defuse the situation. As hard as it is to change these things, it is so worth the effort!
We had a couple of extended family members who hadn't spoken in over ten years. My husband Mike set up a family event that they both came to (not knowing that the other one would be there), and they patched things up that night! Both of them came to many more family events after that, and we got to hear some really great stories from these two brothers' youth.
Family is everything. Put it at the top of your priority list right behind God, and everything else will fall right into place!
My favorite people in the whole world!