In the past week, I have had more emotional turmoil than I did in the last ten years of my life. But it took just one phone call, and my big brother Huw was there. In fact, he had always been there, silent and watchful, looking out for me.
“Fix you,” he would say. Like in the Coldplay song.
Even though we live in different continents now, the bond between us never snagged. I am closer to him than I am to the father of my children, whom I have slept with for almost three decades.
“Everything OK at home?” Huw would ask whenever we spoke. At family gatherings, he would try to get me on my own to ask those pressing questions. “Walk to the shop with me,” he would say. ‘We need to get more milk.”
Funnily enough, I have always thought I am closer to my younger brother Al, whom I used to take the train to school with everyday. Al and I fought like cats and dogs. Huw, on the other hand, had always been the big brother, serious and stoic, to be respected but not played with. Though he is only a year older than I, it had always felt as if he was much older and much more sorted out.
I could tell him anything, even my deepest secrets. I thought I had none, until I unburden myself to Huw. If I told anybody else about the darkness that lurks in my heart, they might stop loving me. But never Huw.
“History,” Huw would say. “We have history.”
And so it dawned upon me again, just how important sibling closeness is. You might have differences and angsts where your siblings are concerned, but at the end of the day, you rise from the same bedrock. When the chips are down and the whole world is against you, it is often your siblings that you can count on to shore you up. Thus, I am very thankful that my children enjoy the same closeness with each other that I enjoy with both my brothers. In fact, their father and I often bemoan the fact that they are closer to each other – with their first loyalties to each other – than they are to us, their parents. They have a shorthand way of speaking to each other, so that family news gets disseminated efficiently and discussed thoroughly, and decisions come to. One voice will speak on behalf of others. Even if there are disagreements within the group, they will speak with one voice.
This sibling cohesion made it difficult for their father and I to enforce anything against their will, because it had always been a collective will. Five voices speaking as one against “the management” aka the parents, either pleading for clemency on behalf of a wrongdoer, vetoing parental plans or pushing forward their agenda. When it comes to our kids, we could never divide and rule. Though that made it challenging to parent them especially in their teenage years, we are glad and relieved that they have this closeness with each other. Because we the parents will not be here forever to support, guide and comfort them. It is good that they have each other to turn to in times of need, and goodness knows, that need could hit anytime, as I have found out in the last week.
My six ways of growing sibling closeness:
1. Model it first
Children learn best by copying. If you are close to your siblings, your children would naturally be (even if they fight like cats and dogs). It makes sense, because if your children can see the benefits you derive from your close relationship, they would want a piece of the action, too. Having sold this to them on emotional and psychological grounds, you can move on to the implementation as outlined in the next steps:
2. Make time for family
It is a fallacy that if you live in the same house, you have a close relationship. I have seen sad incidences where parents and children are sitting round the table in a restaurant, each engrossed in their iPads and smart phones, rather than have conversations with each other. So set the first rule: talk to each other and make mealtimes family times.
3. Teach your children about your family history
Children love stories, so use this opportunity of telling them about your parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins. Give them a sense of belonging. Create that glue that binds the family together.
4. Teach your children to love each other
Many parents have the mistaken belief that because of biology, siblings will automatically love each other. This couldn’t be further than the truth. Children need to be taught love, and also taught to express that love so that it becomes richness in their lives. Simple ways to teach them to love each other:
If one sibling has done something selfless for the other, highlight that (in a casual way);
Encourage them to do nice things for each other;
Play team games where siblings are in the same team versus the parents;
Give them presents that they have to share with each other;
Encourage them to spend time together;
Devise a system where the older one helps his/her younger siblings as part of household chores that all children have to do (but do not overburden the older child with too much).
5. Create the environment
Love does not grow easily in hostile environments. Have lots of love and laughter in the house. A golden rule of my mum’s is never go to bed angry with each other. From personal experience, I discovered that having fresh flowers in the house helps with creating a happy environment. These can be flowers that you and your children pick on your walks.
6. Enjoy each other
There is a lot to be said about having good times together. Even when we struggled in the early days as cash-strapped young parents, we endeavored to put time aside to enjoy each other. The weekends were for the parks in summer and free indoor events in winter (the museums in London were free after 5pm). We took long road trips to visit grandparents, we collected coupons from newspapers for free trips and we read bedtime stories every night. From enjoyment comes warmth and open hearts.
Note: if your child is an only child, use this model with their cousins.