Ask Ann Cannon: I never had a sibling, so how can I teach my kids to like each other?

Ann Cannon

Dear Ann Cannon • I’m an only child raising three really great teenagers (seriously, they’re pretty cool). As experienced parents can attest (also well documented in “The Birth Order” book), our first two are close in age and COMPLETE opposites. The middle, introverted child is unassuming but rarely agrees to do anything others enjoy (and is miserable when it’s time to compromise). The other two are gregarious, which can feel pushy to others, and impatient when others won’t compromise.

My question: How can parents effectively encourage team building and fun among opposite sibling personalities? Perhaps such rifts are normal — it’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Love you, Mom, but you don’t know what it’s like to have siblings.” Which is fair. But how can an only-child parent effectively teach siblings to defend each other and genuinely like one another? After all, when we’re gone, they’ll only have one another.

An Only Child Parent of Siblings

Dear Only Child • One of the ways parents can help their kids bond as individuals is to create a strong sense of identity as a family — a unit all of your children belong to, regardless of their differences. To that end you can employ (or deploy!) the following strategies.

  1. Do plenty of things together as a family. Road trips — if you don’t kill each other — are a great way to bond because you’re all pretty much cellmates in the same car and hotel rooms, right? Seriously, shared activities, even though they are often stressful in the moment, can lead to inside jokes and great stories to share around the dinner table at a later date.

  2. Which reminds me — eating meals together regularly can pay dividends when it comes to building a family’s identity (although I’ll admit I wasn’t great about making this happen with my own kids).

  3. Create holiday traditions. For years our family played something we called “The Candy Game” at Christmas, which always made young children cry if they didn’t win. But here’s the thing —you’d be AMAZED at how fondly they remember that tradition now that they’re non-crying grownups.

  4. Encourage your kids to attend one another’s games, performances, etc. And by “encourage” I mean “force.” At least sometimes. Doing this with teenagers like yours, though, is difficult because they’re schedules are so very busy. Still, it’s worth a try.

  5. Do call them out when they mistreat one another. It probably won’t stop their behavior, but at least they’ll know where you stand.

My guess is that you’re already doing all of these things (plus more!), so give yourself a big pat on the back. You may not see a payoff immediately but be patient. Time and the law of averages are on your side.

I do want to end with a tiny cautionary tale. When I was growing up with brothers, I wanted a sister more than anything else in the world. I thought having a sister would be like going to an epic slumber party every night — the kind where you prank call the cute boys in your class and sing Beatles songs into hairbrushes like they’re microphones and tell scary stories about Reggie’s grave in the Springville Cemetery. How badly did I want a sister? I wanted a sister so badly I used to make my youngest brother wear a dress to get the mail so the neighbors would think I had one. Also, I called him “Judy.”

Well! You can imagine my surprise when I grew up and discovered that sisters don’t always like each other and that sometimes that dislike continues into adulthood. What?! But it’s true. In the end, people are going to feel how they’re going to feel. You can’t legislate that. I doubt this will happen with your children, but if it does, you’ll be totally within your right to insist that they be respectful of one another for the two hours you share together over Sunday dinner. And you know what? That’ll be OK.

Good luck!

Ann Cannon is The Tribune’s advice columnist. Got a question for Ann? Email her at askann@sltrib.com or visit the Ask Ann Cannon page on Facebook.