I don’t want to jinx it, but here it goes: our kids are very close and rarely argue.
I mean, yes, they do bicker sometimes, especially at bedtime when everyone’s tired and someone is daring to boot the other one out of their bedroom so they can change in private. Yes, I hear outraged yelps floating down the stairs and even the occasional slammed door.
But, for the most part, our nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter look out for each other and genuinely enjoy spending time together.
I used to assume this was because they’re pretty close in age. Our son was one and a half when our daughter was born, and I raised them like the twins I’d always wanted.
But I’ve seen siblings with exactly the same age difference who fight mercilessly, so now I’m starting to think it has more to do with how I’ve “encouraged” (um, forced) their friendship over the years.
From scheduling hacks to sneaky ultimatums, here are five things I do to ensure our son and daughter are best buddies:
1. Block off time for them to play together
You might think it would be easy for two school-aged children living in the same house to find time to play together, but it’s not. They stay after school on different days of the week for activities. They have completely different after-school activities (taekwondo versus dance) on different days. We eat early dinners and have early bedtimes. Before we know it, the lights are out and we’re alone in our own rooms.
Longing for the days when they spent hours huddled over a dollhouse or the Playmobil police station — their sweet little voices murmuring together — I try to make a point of blocking off time for them to play together.
I’ll send them upstairs after dinner and take an especially long time cleaning up the kitchen because I hear they’ve started playing LEGO together. I’ll order them upstairs “for quiet time” on a Saturday afternoon, knowing our son will drift into our daughter’s room out of boredom and get talked into playing LOLs or Barbies — and he’ll secretly enjoy it.
2. Make them do chores together
Kids have a natural suspicion of anything that might be unfair, so I’ve found the easiest way to keep the peace is by making them do the same chores at the same time. If one kid is cleaning their room, the other kid has to clean their room — or just hang out in there, if their room isn’t that messy.
Their biggest chore is sorting, folding and putting away the clean laundry that I’ve unceremoniously dumped onto the couch. They’ve worked out a system where our daughter slowly folds the “hard stuff” (i.e. my husband’s shirts) while our son speeds through the faster sorting of socks, underwear and pants.
When the dog needs to be walked around the block, they go together. (They decided that our daughter will pick up the poop, but our son will carry the filled poop bags home.) It’s safer for them to go as a pair, but I also love that they have time alone together to chat during their walk.
3. Reward their friendship
We have pretty strict rules about when and how the kids can watch shows or play video games, so sometimes I’ll announce a sneaky caveat. “No screen time ... unless you want to play Minecraft together?”
Our daughter loves this rule because she’d rather play with her brother than do anything else, ever. Our son would always rather play alone on his computer, but he’ll happily agree to play Minecraft with his sis if it’s that or nothing. They grab PS4 remotes, snuggle together in the big chair and then they’re happily babbling away about who’s building what part of the farm and what they’re going to name the new chickens.
I have a few other tricks. If one of them goes to a birthday party and comes home with a loot bag, they’re allowed to eat as much candy as they want . . . providing they share it with their sibling. I’ll tell them they need to go straight upstairs to get ready for bed . . . or they can play a couple of rounds of Guess Who together first. I’ll announce they can stay up 20 minutes later than usual ... if they take turns reading to each other.
If our son walks to the corner store to buy milk, he’s allowed to use the change for a snack . . . as long as he buys the identical snack for our daughter. He’s proud to come home and present it to her, and she’s delighted he bought something for her. Good feelings all around!
4. Make them work out disagreements on their own
Our kids don’t fight often, but when they do, I have learned not to get too involved. It will lead to two tearful children both shouting to tattle about what the other one did.
Instead, I force them to work it out by sending them somewhere together. I’ll tell them to go outside or upstairs, and they’re not allowed to come back until they’re getting along again.
I’ll peek out the window as they stalk around the yard with angry little faces, refusing to talk to each other or still arguing. The next time I look out the window, they’re both climbing a tree or drawing with chalk, and they’ve worked out — or forgotten about — whatever their fight was about.
5. Encourage them to look out for each other
Even though our kids are two grades apart, our youngest is sharper about remembering the dates/times of activities. (Our oldest can recite books from memory but stare at you blankly if you ask him to locate his jacket.) I encourage them to remind each other not to get on the bus if they have band or choir after school, or to check in with each other if someone’s bringing a friend home with them. They even hug when they see each other in the school hallways.
Of course, this backfires sometimes. God help me when I pick one of them up from school early because they’re sick — and I forget to text or call the other one’s teacher to let them know. Without fail, the one who stayed at school will get off the bus in anxious tears because their sibling wasn’t on the bus and they’re worried about them.
I don’t know how our kids’ friendship will change as they grow up, but I hope they’re always this close. I hope they’ll always enjoy spending time together. I hope they’ll one day understand that the greatest gift my husband and I have ever given them is each other.
Heather Laura Clarke is a freelance journalist who married her high-school sweetheart. They moved from the city to the country, where they spend their days making messes and memories with their nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. Follow their family’s adventures over at www.HeathersHandmadeLife.com.