“How do we teach our children to bond, yet give them space to grow?” Tips on handling sibling rivalry on Salt&Light Family Night
by Christine Leow // May 4, 2021, 4:54 pm
Ong Yi Kwee and his wife, Felicia, with their four sons. The three older boys were excited to have another brother and now take turns feeding and carrying their Di Di. Photo courtesy of the Ong family.
When Felicia Ong’s three sons – an eight-year-old and five-year-old twins – discovered that mummy was expecting Baby Number Four, they were thrilled.
Said Felicia, a young adult pastor: “The three of them play well together right now so they were very excited to have one more join them! But it was during the Circuit Breaker period so they did not have the chance to tell anyone. Every delivery person who came to our door, they would say, ‘Mummy is expecting!’
“Then, they went to the balcony and shouted, ‘Mummy is expecting!’ And our fourth floor neighbour shouted back, ‘Congratulations!’ It was really funny.”
Now four months old, the new addition not only has Mummy Felicia and Daddy Yi Kwee, an investment advisor, to feed him and carry him, he also has three enthusiastic brothers to fuss over him.
Said Felicia: “We’ve learnt not to be over protective of the baby. We let them play with the baby, carry the baby so they will not feel like this is a competition.”
“The three of them play well together right now so they were very excited to have one more join them. “
When the baby came, Felicia and Yi Kwee also made an effort to spend time with each child and to affirm them in their new role as big brothers.
“Each of them has something to bring to the table. The oldest is great at reading books to his brothers. The first twin is very caring, very sweet towards babies in general, very nurturing. Number Three also stepped up.”
The Ongs were sharing on Salt&Light Family Night (April 27) on the topic of managing sibling rivalry. Joining them were the Lims – Dickson, a senior philanthropy advisor, and Allison, a primary school principal – who had adopted four children, three of whom with special needs; and mother of seven Ong Suwei and her oldest son, 21-year-old Asher.
Among the viewers who logged onto the Zoom chat show were parents (77%) with at least two (50%) or three (27%) children. The majority of their children were Primary schoolers and teens, while a third of them were under five.
Here are some of the viewers’ questions on dealing with sibling rivalry and useful tips from the panel:
How do you manage sibling rivalry?
#1 Allow for personal space
Managing sibling rivalry is a delicate balance.
Every child needs to be seen as the individual; yet spending time together with the other siblings is important for creating shared memories. In other words, children need to learn to share, yet they also need space of their own.
The Lims make their four children share rooms because they believe this fosters togetherness.
The four study desks are also deliberately placed side by side. Even if the children are doing parallel activities, such as enjoying screen time with different devices, the Lims encourage the children to be in the same room.
“She knows she is very safe because she has her own corner.”
But the Lims also recognise that their oldest child is introverted and prefers her own space.
“So we give her a corner. It is more like an alley,” said Allison. “She will allow her siblings in if she wants to but they have to ask for permission. If there is consent, then you are welcomed in.”
When the family crowds in her corner, she “freaks out”.
“But she knows she is very safe because she has her own corner,” said Allison. “We also explicitly explain to her that, because we know you are like that, we want to celebrate that you are like that, so we still respect that you need this space.
“She is appreciative that we strike a balance – we give her what she needs, but we also need to help her understand how to do communal living.”
The children are also free to opt out of certain family activities so they can have their own personal time.
“Certain outings we dictate that we will all go together, but other times, like grocery shopping, whoever wants to join us can join us. Some prefer to be at home for water time or to play Lego and that’s fine too,” said Allison.
“When somebody knows how to spend time by themselves, to enjoy themselves, that is an interesting experience.”
For the Ong family, raising seven children in a five-room flat might be a tight squeeze but family members still manage to carve out private spaces.
“If we want to hide away somewhere, there is still space to hide,” said Suwei with a smile.
Though the boys share a room, they also ensure there are boundaries.
Said Asher: “I don’t even store my own stuff over in my brother’s space. I have to keep it in my own space.”
Asher has learnt to carve out space and time for himself that is not confined to the home. He has what he calls ah pek (old uncle) sessions, where he goes to the coffeeshop in his estate to enjoy a cuppa on his own, much like local uncles are wont to do.
“When somebody knows how to spend time by themselves, to enjoy themselves, I think that is also a very interesting experience,” he added.
#2 Cultivate care and concern
In the Lim household, family devotions and prayer play a big part in keeping sibling rivalry at bay.
Said Allison: “When we have devotions, I will get them to share with everybody else what they have gotten out of the lesson.
“Then, we keep affirming them, ‘You got this right!’”
As the siblings open up, they learn to understand each other. That also gives the younger siblings the assurance that someone older appreciates their perspective and is looking out for them.
Prayer has been instrumental in uniting the siblings as well. At night, the family gathers to pray for each other. Then in the morning, as the four siblings are driven to school, they pray for each other again.
“If they want to play, they have to look out for each other.”
“It makes them aware of each other’s needs,” said Allison, “and we also teach them to pray about things around them.
“This has a very indirect impact on not looking inward so much, but learning to look outward, to see what they can do for others.”
The Lim children have learnt, not only to pray for one another, but to ask after each other.
Said Allison: “At night, they will check back, ‘So how, Jie Jie, you had to run when you were not feeling well, did you do okay?’
“We try to shape their thinking: Instead of praying for the things that you want, pray for one another and do the check-back.”
Felicia fosters care in her children by getting her sons to look out for each other when they are at the playground.
“If they want to play, they have to look out for each other. This fosters group collaboration.”
#3 Meet demands for attention
Siblings often fight over limited resources, whether it is toys, space or attention. Yi Kwee resolves this by ensuring there is more than enough parental attention to go around.
“Our youngest is four months old. He requires a lot of attention from his mother. So, as a father, I step up.
“In the evening when I come back from work and my wife needs to pump milk or carry the baby, I will try to take time to be with the other boys.”
“Where do all of these intimate relationships thrive? In a righteous and holy environment.”
Felicia used to be one who would read to the older boys, and they tend to look for her when they want a story. So Yi Kwee had to “think of creative ways to take over the role”, such as asking a lot of questions of using different accents.
Added Felicia: “All this is so they won’t feel that baby is now centrestage.”
In an effort to ensure there is time for the older boys with a new baby in the house, Felicia also opted to pump her milk rather than nurse her baby.
“That has made me more available to the boys for school runs and activities. And they could take turns to feed the baby, which they do very well.”
#4 Teach forgiveness
In the Ong household of nine, the peace is kept by ensuring that everyone “keeps short accounts”.
“We offend each other all the time,” said Suwei. “Even adults, parents, we offend our children. So, we surface these problems quickly, don’t let it simmer, talk about it, make right quickly and have a clean slate.”
Agreed Asher: “Where do all of these intimate relationships thrive? In a righteous and holy environment. What does it mean to keep a short account? Be humble. Have humility and respect, and that is the practice of love.
“If we keep short accounts, we can then reimagine our relationship even better.”
As the oldest child, 21-year-old Asher has had plenty of opportunities to practise patience and give his younger siblings the opportunity to grow.
“Even when they offend me, I can appreciate the fact that I was also like that before. And I also want them to go beyond this.”
#5 Share the truth of God’s love
Yi Kwee and Felicia use biblical truths to build their children up as well.
“As they are affirmed in their own identity, they will not feel the need to outdo another person.”
Said Felicia: “We continually assure them that each is uniquely created and that God loves each and every one of them; there is enough love so there is no need to compete.
“They need to experience God for themselves. Even the youngest child needs to have his own encounter with God, to know that God really loves each and every one of them and appreciates them.
“They need to catch that Father heart of God for them, so that they can be assured of their relationship with God and have the sense of security as, first and foremost, daughters and sons of the Most High.
“As they are affirmed in their own identity, they will not feel the need to outdo another person.”
Can sibling rivalry be a positive way to encourage healthy competition?
“Only if it is to beat each other in loving one another,” said Allison with a laugh.
“Let my KPI be less shouting and screaming, and more of loving words and considering others better than myself.”
“Friendly competition is healthy if it comes from security.”
The Lims would rather not use the word “rivalry” because of the negative association. Instead, they choose to urge their children to help each other be better.
Dickson shared that the dining table is where the most competition happens as each child vies for mummy’s attention.
“As a father, I’m the prop. Everybody is trying to tell mummy what went on in their day, what they achieved. Friendly competition is healthy if it comes from security.
“We always tell them that their own area of talent is valued, as long as they try their best. Even in our congratulatory note, we always emphasise, ‘Because you did your best.’”
What if I need to give more attention to one of the children?
Out of the four Lim children, the three younger ones all have learning needs. And Allison and Dickson make it a point to assure their eldest that she is just as deserving of attention.
They also try to highlight learning points for all.
Allison shared an incident that happened to her youngest son who has dyslexia. He had worked very hard in his spelling and had scored 59 points. The family was delighted and celebrated his achievement.
“We cannot control the result; we can only control our effort.”
But his class partner scored full marks and got a star from the teacher. When their son saw the star, he drew a star for himself in his book.
Allison’s heart broke for him.
But she told her son: “God did not allow you to go through this for no reason. One day you will be able to relate, you will be able to extend that same grace, because nobody has that experience you had.
“If God is in the picture, if He is sovereign, there is a reason why you go through difficult things. You have an army of family members who can make sure you will get through this and thrive in God’s economy. This is really grace.”
As for 21-year-old Asher, who blazes a trail for his younger siblings, he realised that, because he did very well for his Poly results – he had a GPA of 3.99 – his success has caused a brother who is just beginning his polytechnic education to feel pressure.
“So, I assure him that this success is only attributed to effort and to finding the right match between me and the course. I think what I’m learning is to talk about not focusing on the result, but focusing on the effort.
“We cannot control the result; we can only control our effort. What has worked out in our family is to do your best … and leave the rest to God.”