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Big Sis and Little Brother: Attachment Theory and the Sibling Relationship

When we were little, my little brother and I fought all the time. The wrestling matches ended when I couldn’t beat him anymore, but the verbal spats just grew more heated with each passing year. By the time we reached adulthood, we rarely spoke. This is one of my biggest regrets, and not something I want to see repeated with my children.

The classic, Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, provided lots of great parenting advice for encouraging a healthy sibling relationship. Mostly, I was guided by the idea that each child seeks a unique relationship with their parent. It’s not as important to have fair and equal time, as it is to develop a relationship based on individual interests. However, I was bothered by one of their last recommendations, “Don’t get trapped by ‘togetherness,” where the authors counsel against family outings that could exacerbate sibling irritations.

Instead of following separation advice, I took the opposite tack and it seems to be working out pretty well.

Now that my children are fourteen and eleven years old, they share a truly special bond. They still quibble over little things, but when it comes to the things that matter to them, they are on the same page. Big sis looks out for little brother, and he follows her advice to the letter.

I didn’t consciously set out to follow attachment parenting principles; I’m not super clear about them even now. But, somehow, I think we ended up promoting a sibling relationship based on attachment theory.

Attachment theory, originally proposed by John Bowlby, states that the infant has a tendency to seek closeness to another person and feel secure when that person is present. (Wikipedia)

 Baby Alex and his Big Sister

Even before we left the hospital, Big Sis and Baby Alex snuggled together for the first of many naps. Those first couple of years, before the eldest headed off to kindergarten, were spent together 24/7 becoming each other’s first and best friend.

After they entered school, it was much harder to find time to spend together. We still scheduled regular family outings and weekends together, but it’s the summer-long expeditions that have made all the difference.

When the kids became old enough to be sent off to camp during the summer, I chose instead to keep them with me. Some years, we stayed at home, gardening and exploring upstate New York. More recently, we traveled further afield.

 Whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande

Last year, we started the summer with a grueling hut to hut hiking expedition in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; and ended it with the whole family getting PADI scuba dive certified in the Virgin Islands. The year before that, I took the kids on a two month cross-country road trip that we dubbed, “Reading Across America,” because we chose our destinations from children’s storybooks.

It’s on these demanding, lengthy journeys that the two kids banded together against the crazy parents. They formed an alliance that carries them through the year, and all the tests they face in daily life. And that’s OK with me.

Often with a party of five that includes an understanding husband and a trouble-making dog, Sandra Foyt has been eagerly exploring the Northeast  since her children gave up naps on their first birthdays. She writes about these outings and other fun things to do with kids in New York at www.AlbanyKid.com, and adventurous mommy blogging at www.TheJourneyMom.com.

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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Mama Mo December 1, 2010, 1:41 pm

    I love the idea of the attachment principals working for siblings. I have twin sons, and I hope that they consider each other indispensable as they grow up together!

  • Momma Jorje December 2, 2010, 12:09 am

    Visiting from Natural Parents Network!

    What a great theory! Our daughter is 1yo and we hope to conceive a baby brother soon. I hope we are able to foster such a close relationship in our children as you have with yours.

    Beautiful photos, too!

  • EcoFreshBaby December 2, 2010, 11:11 pm

    Visiting from Natural Parents Network!

    I wish more parents chose this theory, instead of separating the kids and sending them off to different rooms, schools, camps etc.

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