I received multiple questions about supporting siblings with differing needs and interests and sibling relationships, so I thought I’d address them together. A couple of them also have extenuating circumstances—I’ll talk about those bits up front.
My question is what are some tips for supporting and growing a Family of Individuals (which I LOVE the idea of) when you have 4 kids that are so close in age and are all very strong willed (none of them really “go with the flow” – which is good and I admire it – since that is how I am – and I love that they challenge things and all want their own way! I just can’t figure out how to make it work within our family??).
Would love to see the topic of siblings/meeting different needs discussed.
How as a mum of 6 children from ages of 8 months to 9 years do I spend time engaged with each of my children’s passions? All of their interests are different, I have been feeling guilty lately that I am not fully engaging with any of my children and how do I be right there for them and have a clean house??? Sometimes our home is so messy and I feel very unorganised and overwhelmed and then I get frustrated and angry and revert back to old ways of being which means I’m just yelling again. Any feedback would be most appreciated.
The clean house issue is wrapped up in this one. It’s pretty clear that mom’s feeling a sharp either/or distinction: being with and supporting her children vs a clean house. One thing that might help break out of that dichotomy is to move away from the mindset that these are mutually exclusive activities.
If this is the case for you, try going about your day from that new perspective and see what comes up. Are there moments when you can, say, tidy up a bit while you’re chatting with a child or two? Or fold laundry on the bed with a young one or two, covering them in warm towels? I have quite a few pictures of my kids when they were little wrapped up in laundry, or using the laundry basket as a boat. Or a hat. LOL! How about emptying the dishwasher while they’re playing a game at the kitchen table? Look for ways things can be combined, instead of feeling like you’re doing one at the expense of the other. It’s amazing what a few minutes here and there can do.
It might also be helpful to read this post: Chores and an Unschooling Childhood. Not that the question mentions chores, but there’s some great discussion in the post and the comments about the idea of “a clean house” and some ways to approach organization alongside your children.
I’d love to hear more regarding your perspective on sibling rivalry, conflict etc. no matter how I’ve tried, it seems, my two older children fight terribly, about 50% of the time. It can be unbearable at times. I’ve been unschooling my son since January, still learning more each day. My daughter attends a Waldorf school-she does not want to be homeschooled.
Here there’s the overlay of one child attending school—that can definitely add extra strain to the sibling dynamics if they judge each other negatively for their differing choices. You’ll likely need to help them work through that tangle. For example, as moments of conversation arise, you might share the reasons behind their sibling’s choices, helping each better understand the other.
Now let’s examine some ideas about supporting the interests and passions of multiple children and navigating sibling relationships. But first, let’s look at a couple of real life parameters to help give this discussion some perspective:
- There are only twenty-four hours in a day. This means that the more children you have, the less time you have available to spend with them individually. That’s not to make anyone feel bad for having multiple children! The joy of a houseful of children can be immense. But I remember having three children ages five and under—it’s busy!! There are a lot of practical needs that need to be attended to. That’s just a reality you’ve chosen for a few years. 🙂
- Choosing unschooling for your family doesn’t mean life will be “perfect”. Don’t expect that everyone will be happy all the time and that siblings will be the best of friends. We are all real people. We all have different personalities and needs and dreams, which may or may not mesh very well with those of the people we happen to live with. And just because we chose what we do in the moment, doesn’t mean things always flow smoothly—many things are out of our control.
All that said, unschooling is a wonderful environment in which to support our children and our family relationships, now and in the longer-term.
Supporting Everyone’s Interests and Needs
This can definitely be challenging, getting more and more complicated as more personalities are added to the mix. Maybe some want to go out places; others prefer to stay home. Maybe some love to run around at the playground; others prefer indoor attractions. Maybe none like the grocery store. Try something, see how it goes, talk about it, and work together to adjust the plan accordingly. Try again. Mix things up to see what happens. Think outside that box. Grocery shopping an incredible challenge every week? Look at online shopping and delivery—is it really as expensive as you think? Is grocery shopping online more convenient for you? Find out. The more facts you have to work with, the better. Keep trying.
How the members of the family interact isn’t something that has one “right answer”—it’s a process. And remember, things change over time: interests change, circumstances change, their independence grows etc. Even if things have been going pretty smoothly for a while, things will change. Play and tweak and try things out. Together. Always work with those involved.
One thing I found really helpful when the kids were younger and we were trying to figure out a plan for something, was to talk to each of them individually, giving each of them my focused attention. I’d find out why they did or did not want to do X. If they didn’t, I’d ask if they were amenable to X-Y, a modified version of X (that modification may be my idea, or one of their sibling’s). I’d ask for their ideas. Then chatting with the next child, I could quickly explain their sibling’s point-of-view (helping them learn about each other) and how they felt about it. Even if it took a number of chats (usually pretty short), over a few days, back and forth with each child, I’d get a clearer picture of what each of their needs and wishes were and most often we could find something that would work for everyone involved. Sometimes the plans got quite elaborate. We were all learning.
With this process, not only do the children feel heard and understood, but they also have time and space to think. Especially for quieter personalities, ones who may be uncomfortable when expected to speak up and think on the spot, group decision-making can be challenging. Ease into that when it seems appropriate. Sometimes, when I thought there would be general agreement, I would bring up the plans when we were altogether and we’d work through the details. More learning. Their abilities to analyze situations, consider everyone’s needs, and find workable paths forward grew steadily.
And remember, you don’t need to do it all on your own. Another pair of hands around the house might help—maybe a mother’s helper, maybe a neighbourhood teen who enjoys playing with kids. Maybe one child really enjoys spending a day with their grandparents every week or two. Maybe adding their friends to the mix, at home or out and about, helps make the dynamics more manageable for a few hours. Experiment. Play. When things go awry, it’s not the end of the world, try something else next time. Try to be light and nimble and considerate. Learn.
This process is about developing their trust in you.
The result is a strong, connected relationship with each of your children.
Sibling Relationships and Conflict
Do you have the expectation that your children should “get along”? If so, why? Because they live in the same house? Share the same genetic soup? That seems a stretch. On the other hand, everyone wants to feel safe in their own home. Even better, to feel understood and supported. Sometimes we can feel like as parents our foremost goal is to minimize conflict between our children (“please don’t fight with your brother”), but that’s more about treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead, think of these interactions as part of a journey in which we’re learning ways to live comfortably with the other members of our family. From that level of comfort, conflicts arise less and less. And when they do, those involved have helpful tools to move through them more smoothly.
Here are three ideas for parents that, in my experience, can help families take that journey together.
First, when conflicts arise, don’t insist that your children talk to each other to “work it out”—that conversation will be about meeting your needs, not theirs. Take your expectations out of the mix. Talk to each of them individually. See the situation from their perspective. If you don’t understand, keep trying. They have their perspective and their reasons. When you deeply understand and empathize with each child involved, you’ll likely be in a better position to help them find workable paths through their conflicts.
Second, shift away from the conventional power paradigm, where family relationships are seen in terms of a power dynamic—both adults versus children, and children amongst themselves. In that environment, actions are motivated by a need to gain power over others, to fight for or defend their position in the family hierarchy. You can start by moving away from the adults versus children model. Give your children choices. Instead of using your power to try to get them to do what you want them to do, support them as they explore the world. As the power struggles fade between parents and children, the children begin to see how powerful the family is when they actively support each other. Everyone feels safer because they have the power of their family behind them. They no longer need to feel powerful by frustrating their siblings—by exerting power over them. There is less and less driving need or reason to create conflict.
And third, look at how you measure “fair” between siblings. Conventionally, many families measure it based on quantity and equate “fair” with “equal”: the same number of gifts for holidays, the same number of outside activities etc. Over time, the kids hear the message loud and clear and start to view their lives through that same filter: “He had three cookies—I only got two!” Moving to unschooling helps us begin to see fairness not as a quantitative measure of what the parents give, but as a qualitative measure of the value each child receives. That’s a helpful shift because what each child needs from you is probably different. One may need more of your time, another more money for their outside interests, and another more of your direct participation in their activities. You may be giving each of your children very different things that take varying amounts of time and effort and money, but when their unique needs are being met, they each feel content, secure, and happy.
When you look at these ideas together, you see that what each conventional paradigm does is undermine the individual. Yet in my experience, when we support and celebrate each of our children as the unique individuals they are, we better foster a family atmosphere of joy, harmony, and safety from which minimal conflict grows.
I dug a lot more into these ideas in a talk I gave this summer, which you’re welcome to read on my website: A Family of Individuals. (I also plan to soon record an audio version for those who enjoy/prefer listening to reading—I’ll post when it’s available.)