Sibling Bonds Are More Important Than You Think

My children love each other. Like, really love each other.

We spend our days together, every day. Not just a couple of hours in the afternoon. All day. We are unschoolers. We don’t spend days separated at home doing age level curriculum, we spend our days with interests intertwined, learning together. There is conflict and conflict resolution, a natural multi-age peer group, and endless opportunity to experiment with social skills in a safe space.

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My kids understand and take interest in each other’s passions because they see them every day. And despite three extremely different personalities, they are huge supporters of each other. I can’t imagine them missing out on this time together

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For 80 years, Harvard has been conducting the Grant Study which has looked at the same group of men and monitored their physical and emotional health. George Valliant, a director of the Harvard study for 35 years, said in an interview, ‘good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.’

A thirty year study on sibling relationships and depression found that ‘participants who had poorer relationships with their siblings in childhood were significantly more likely to become depressed as adults than those who had better sibling relationships.’

And a study by Laura Padilla-Walker and James Harper found that healthy relationships between preteen and teen siblings, lowered rates of depression, lowered the risk for delinquency and promoted pro-social behaviours like kindness and empathy.

Sibling relationships are really important!

There are countless articles and studies espousing the benefits of connection and community to help with everything from addiction to leading a full and happy life. Through life’s changes, family is the community that can remain constant and as parents, we have such an amazing opportunity to help foster the kind of team that is going to lead our kids through a supported childhood and into a happy adult life.

So, it seems very strange to me that despite these kinds of studies, western society seems to value nurturing the family unit less and less. Kids are separated from parents and siblings in the school environment from an increasingly early age and there is little opportunity for siblings to interact while actually in school. The increase of age-segregated after school activities also serves to decrease the amount of time available for siblings to share experiences and foster connections.

Unschooling has given us the gift of time with each other. My children have all day to show their interest in each other, to problem solve together, to share experiences and learn together and to manage conflict in a supportive environment.

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During his longitudinal study on couples and relationships in the seventies, Dr Gottman found that successful relationships follow the 5:1 rule. That is, successful relationships on average have five positive interactions for every negative one.

When my kids were briefly in school, I felt like I got to see the worst of them. Rushing through the early morning, and then tired and strung out in the afternoon. And they got to see the worst in each other. They clashed and just wanted space from everyone. Everything would recalibrate over the holidays, just in time for the whole process to unravel again with the start of term. Our positive interaction balance sheet was way out.

Watching my children, I have noticed some of the amazing benefits they get spending their days together.

My daughter is naturally more reserved and cautious around new people than her brothers. Great friends came to visit us over the weekend who we hadn’t seen for four months and were blown away by the change in her. She chatted happily with them and even took our friend by his hand to show him her playroom. In the years prior, he had never seen her leave my leg or smile at anyone other than her family. I truly feel like this development in confidence has so much to do with the strength of her sibling bonds.  She gets all day, every day to practice her social skills with people who love her and who she trusts completely. It started slowly, but as we went to new environments, her brothers would always offer for her to go and play with them amongst the sea of new faces. Slowly, she started saying yes as long as one of them was holding her hand. They waited for her, helped her, brought her to us when she was too nervous and she slowly grew in confidence. She began extending this confidence to children her own age she had gotten to know and is blossoming on her own terms.

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My eldest son, who struggled so much in the overwhelming environment of school, has now had the safety of home and the support of the people he loves to help him see what it means to be a good friend and to see those qualities in himself. Tonight, he was talking to me again about how he would love more brothers and sisters. I asked him what he likes about having a brother and a sister and he told me that they have so much fun together, and when he is having a hard time they always support him and that they are his best friends. Cue lump in throat. What a sweetheart.

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My six year old son, the charismatic extrovert who loves and is loved easily, doesn’t have to exist in an environment where he is always behind his brother due to age. He idolises his brother, and has the opportunity to learn from him every day, but also the reverse happens regularly. He doesn’t view himself as less than, but rather that they both have their strengths to share. This is an experience that school, with its age based learning could never provide.

As parents, we try hard to foster healthy relationships within our family unit. We aim never to compare our children and talk a lot about how people learn skills in their own time. We talk about each other in loving ways and we model repairing relationships when we make bad choices.

Like all siblings, my kids clash, they hurt feelings, they make mistakes. But this doesn’t define our days. Our balance sheet is in order.

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