It just breaks your heart, doesn’t it, the first time your adoring preschooler runs to join in with her older brother’s or sister’s play, only to be rebuffed for reasons she can’t possibly understand. Whether it’s a polite “We want to play by ourselves” or a flat out “Go away,” rejection hurts.
And yet, you know that older kids need, sometimes, to play with their friends at their own level without interruption, or work on a craft or construction project without fear of having it wrecked. How to find the balance between encouraging kindness and inclusion, and protecting the older child’s right to her own friends and activities?
“Balance is the operative word,” agrees Barbara Desmarais, a Vancouver parenting coach. “There are so many things that are important about co-operating with siblings, getting along, learning to share and accept. But kids also have a right to a life separate from their siblings and need opportunities to socialize with children their own age.”
Mary Lou Bennett, executive director of the Family Resource Centre of West Hants in Windsor, NS, adds that when the older child is forced too often to play with or look after the younger, resentment is the likely result. That works against “a sibling bond that could have been warm and loving,” adds Desmarais.
So how to stickhandle this delicate sibling dynamic? Some suggestions:
A friend for everyone and everyone with their friend. When an older child is coming over to play, says Bennett, why not invite one for your preschooler as well? “Then the older ones have their own play, and the younger ones are happy too” — which is easier, even though it’s more children, than having to deal with hurt feelings and demands for privacy.
Tempt the younger one. April Adlington, mother to Jessie and Tori (who are six years apart), brings out the really tempting toys and activities when Jessie needs a break from her little sister. “I set up the playdough or get Tori to help me mix up cookies, or go outside and push her on the swing. Or I might involve her in helping to fix a snack for the older ones.”
Draw the line at meanness. The dynamic with different friends can change. Sometimes the older kids will include the younger for a while, or nicely ask for time alone. But if you hear things like “You’re a pest! Get out of here!” coming from the playroom, it’s time to intervene: “If Liam is getting in your way, come and ask me for help, and I’ll find him something else to do. But I don’t want to hear any name-calling or mean talk.”
Look for parallel play opportunities. Sometimes there’s an activity a younger child can do beside the older one, at her own level. “Lego was great for that in our family,” says Bennett. Older kids can make more elaborate crafts or artwork, while the younger one explores the materials. (Just keep their workspaces far enough apart that the older child’s creation won’t be destroyed!) Outdoor play, such as soccer (with both kids taking shots on Mom or Dad, not the younger child getting creamed), can also provide low-conflict fun.
Enlist your older child’s expertise. Sometimes we do ask our older kids to indulge the younger, to be kind and find a way to include them. Bennett often found that her older son, Matthew, was more receptive to being called in as a consultant than a playmate. “He wasn’t too keen on playing with the teddy bears. But if I could point to something his younger brother had a difficult time with and say, ‘Matthew, can you show Ben how to do this? He’s small and you’re good at putting things together’ — that would work out well.”
Catch her being nice. We all like to have our efforts appreciated, so when your older child does make an effort to play with her younger sibling, make sure you take the time to acknowledge it, says Desmarais.
Finally, don’t underestimate children’s ability to come up with creative solutions. The flip side of protecting an older child’s time with friends or in her own private pusuits is to expect that there are ways for all to have fun together and that kids are capable of finding them. Mind you, they aren’t always the activities a parent would choose. When my own older boys were in their wrestling phase, they used to set up “cage matches” between action figures in the dog crate. The game was quite elaborate, involving name slips pulled out of a pillowcase and a chart of winners. But my three-year-old had a role too — he would sit inside the cage and toss the two wrestling figures that were handed to him, thus determining the winner. Neither he nor I really understood what was going on, but he loved being in the middle of the action. And for that reason, I loved it too.