Sanctification By Sibling: Seven Encouragements for the Parents Who Love Them

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When my oldest son Mac was applying to colleges, one school required that he write a 150-word essay about something that outraged him. He came to me wondering what he should write about: Racism? Human trafficking? The opioid crisis? The possibilities were numerous and depressing, as was the looming fact that at age seventeen, he didn’t feel like he had anything particularly profound to say about any of those issues.

He disappeared into his room, muttering under his breath. A few hours later at the dinner table, I tentatively asked him what he had decided to write about. Glaring at his middle brother across the table, he replied: ‘I am OUTRAGED by the way Sam always steals my clothes…”

Mac wrote:

My younger brother wears my clothes all the time. When I say all the time, I mean all. The. Time. Sam, who’s two years my inferior, understandably wants to look as sharp as me, but this is quite literally wearing me out. By now I’ve asked him upwards of 30 billion times to stop, but he still refuses to cooperate. Every morning he makes his daily pilgrimage down the hall to my dresser and never fails to wear exactly what I was about to put on. Thanks, Sam. Love you too. Maybe next year at college my fully stocked closet might even make me miss him…maybe…I mean I don’t get what’s so hard about a simple request, but the bigger issue is this: why on earth does this bother me in the first place? 

Since Cain and Abel, sibling friction has been one of the hallmarks of the nuclear family. Fortunately, most parents don’t handle quite the level of conflict that Adam and Eve faced, but most of us who have more than one child find ourselves refereeing squabbles on occasion, or maybe, as Mac put it: All. The Time.

When my third and youngest son Ben was born, I used Psalm 133:1 for his birth announcement: “Behold! How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!” As much as I wanted to believe that God had given me a prophetic word, I think it was more a hope and a prayer that my boys would be great friends. My own younger brother is one of my favorite people in the world. I really wanted my kids to have that same sibling friendship, to love each other as much as I love them.

Siblings don’t choose each other. They are stuck with each other, but deliberately so, by a God who does everything for their good. The “stuckness” of a sibling means we won’t easily escape dealing with that person; God forces us into relationship, which in some families looks something like shoving two cats in the same car carrier for a trip to the vet. Because siblings share so much – parents, a home, DNA – there’s a built-in competition for time, attention, affection, money, specialness, everything. There’s also a vulnerability between siblings. They know secrets and they know weaknesses. All of this means a sibling is uniquely qualified to show us the darkness of our own hearts, to be used as a worthy instrument in God’s hands to teach us how to love.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27: 17 ) Sometimes that sharpening comes with lots of sparks and noise that make parenting feuding siblings a dicey proposition. But we as parents, with Scripture and the kindness of God as our guide, can allow that sharpening to puncture the self-righteousness that destroys sibling harmony:

1. Develop basic rules of engagement and make those expectations very clear… Start when your kids are young. Define what is unacceptable sibling behavior and discipline accordingly. Teach apology and forgiveness as routine behavior in your home by being the first to apologize and the first to forgive. Spend time as a family studying what Scripture says about how God’s family treats each other; note consistent themes like unity in Christ and blessing each other.

When my sons were little, we routinely discussed how my boys are “double brothers” – biological brothers and brothers in Christ – and they were going to spend eternity together. Some days they weren’t too thrilled by that prospect, but the message was clear: God’s will is for you guys to “seek peace and pursue it…”together. (2 Peter 3: 11)

2.…then let the kids work it out. As our kids become teens, we have to allow the sharpening to happen. If parents keep stepping in, we rob our kids of the opportunity to solve real conflict with people for whom they have strong feelings. In the situation Mac described in his essay, I could have stopped Sam from his daily borrowing and perhaps won some temporary peace and gratified my own need to feel like a good mom. The far more painful exercise of letting my sons work out their own argument was an exercise for us all in grace and forgiveness and accepting each other’s boundaries.

By the grace of God, the one and only fist fight in my house came to a quick end when I refused to take sides or intervene. I had no idea how to respond, so all I did was go in the other room and pray. Ten minutes after they bloodied each other’s noses, my boys were playing Madden together peacefully.

3. Remember, some level of sibling conflict is pretty normal. People who love each other squabble, argue, and fight. Don’t be overly worried if your kids go through long periods of time where they don’t like each other. I had two kiddos who basically didn’t speak to each other for a year. At the time I was heartbroken, but now I see it was a necessary first step to building the adult friendship they are working toward now. My anxiety during that time only made things worse. Jesus was stuck with brothers who thought he was crazy; they were stuck with a brother who claimed to be the son of God- although He was the only Brother in history who could have backed up a claim to being “more special than you.” (Mark 3:21)

4. Evaluate your own role in the conflicts. Hopefully none of us is giving one of our twelve sons a many-colored robe… or feeding rivalry by showing favoritism. What happened between Joseph and his brothers was extreme, but by no means an isolated event. Jacob had already made a mess of things with his own brother Esau, and Laban’s behavior assured that Leah and Rachel would never savor their sisterhood. (See Genesis 37, 27, and 29.) However, conflict doesn’t always stem from parental behavior. In Luke 15, the younger brother infuriated the older brother, but their father loved them equally despite their opposite flaws. We just need to be very honest with ourselves about how we as parents contribute to sibling dynamics.

5. Let the humbling happen. Put your kids on the same team. One brother mows the yard while the other does the edging. If one sister is sick, have the other run to the grocery to get the Gatorade and saltines. Take prayer requests at the dinner table and have them pray for each other. When siblings work together and serve one another, their hearts are humbled and softened towards each other. When they face the reality of their own neediness and sinfulness, they find it easier to give grace to their brothers and sisters.

6. When they calm down, invite your warring children to be curious about their conflict.Why on earth does this bother me in the first place?” is a useful question to get each child to examine their own role in the conflict and get some perspective about their own reaction. Was the stealing of the clothes really cause for outrage? Hardly, but as long as Sam got a fireworks display every morning when he wore Mac’s shirt, he was going to continue provoking his brother. When siblings learn to modulate their reactions according to the actual (rather than the perceived) seriousness of the  offense, everyone starts acting – and reacting – much more reasonably.

7. Laugh whenever possible. If we will trust God with our children, we find some freedom not to take everything so seriously. If we as parents can sometimes laugh at our own stubborn, nit-picky hearts and outsized egos, our kids will learn to do the same. Sometimes the gentlest teasing or a well-timed joke allows the sweet breeze of affection to cool the hot heads in the house.

God gives us the good gift of family that we might grow in Christlikeness. My boys and I are still learning, still forcing each other to grow in love, still teaching each other to give grace.

Because even now, every so often, a shirt goes missing…

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.

Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  

And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. 

And be thankful.

(Colossians 3:12-15)

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