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May 31, 2023

Some Sibling Strategies

Question: Dr. Dobson, we are planning our family very carefully and want to space the children properly. Is there an ideal age span that will bring greater harmony between them?


Answer: Children who are two years apart and of the same sex are more likely to be competitive with one another. On the other hand, they are also more likely to enjoy mutual companionship. If your babies are four or more years apart, there will be less camaraderie between them, but you’ll at least have only one child in college at a time. My evasive reply to your question reflects my personal bias: There are many more important reasons for planning a baby at a particular time than the age of those already born. Of greater significance are the health of the mother, the parents’ desire for another child, financial considerations, and the stability of the marriage. The relative age of the siblings is not one of the major determiners, in my opinion.

Question: Dr. Dobson, my older child is a great student and earns straight A’s year after year. Her younger sister, now in the sixth grade, is completely bored in school and won’t even try. The frustrating thing is that the younger girl is probably brighter than her older sister. Why would she refuse to apply her abilities like this?

Answer: There could be many reasons for your younger daughter’s academic disinterest, but let me suggest the most probable explanation. Children will often refuse to compete when they think they are likely to place second instead of first. Therefore, a younger child may avoid challenging an older sibling in her area of greatest strength. If Son Number One is a great athlete, then Son Number Two may be more interested in collecting butterflies. If Daughter Number One is an accomplished pianist, then Daughter Number Two may scorn music and take up tennis. This is the exact scenario that I described in the story about my assistant and his older brother. The younger sibling did not have the desire (or the ability) to compete against his older sibling at the piano and desperately wanted to do something else in which he would not be compared unfavorably.

This rule does not always hold true, of course, depending on the child’s fear of failure and the way he estimates his chances of competing successfully. If his confidence is high, he may blatantly wade into the territory owned by his big brother, determined to do even better. However, the more typical response is to seek a new area of compensation that is not yet dominated by a family superstar.

If this explanation fits the behavior of your younger daughter, then it would be wise to accept something less than perfection from her school performance. Siblings need not fit the same mold—nor can we force them to do so.

Question: Dr. Dobson, I am a single parent with two strong-willed young boys who are just tearing each other apart. I think I could deal with their sibling rivalry if only I had some encouragement and practical help in dealing with everyday life. The pressure of working, cooking dinner, and doing the job of two parents leaves me sapped and unable to deal with their constant bickering. What encouragement can you offer to those of us who are single parents? Each day seems more difficult than the one before it. Can you help plead our case to those who don’t understand what we’re facing?

Answer: According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, there are now over 12 million single-parent homes in the United States. In my view, single parents have the toughest job in the universe! Hercules himself would tremble at the range of responsibilities people like you must handle every day. It’s difficult enough for two parents with a solid marriage and stable finances to satisfy the demands of parenting. For a single mother or father to do that task excellently over a period of years is evidence of heroism.

The greatest problem faced by single parents, especially a young mother like yourself, is the overwhelming amount of work to be done. Earning a living, fixing meals, caring for kids, helping with homework, cleaning the house, paying bills, repairing the car, handling insurance, doing the banking, preparing the income tax returns, shopping, etc., can require twelve hours or more a day. She must continue that schedule seven days a week all year long, sometimes with no support from family or anyone else. It’s enough to exhaust the strongest and healthiest woman. Then where does she find time and energy to meet her own social and emotional needs—and how does she develop the friendships on which that part of her life depends? Single parenting is no easier for fathers, who may find themselves trying to comb their daughter’s hair and explain menstruation to their preteen girls.

There is only one answer to the pressures single parents face. It is for the rest of us to give these moms and dads a helping hand. They need highly practical assistance, including the friendship of two-parent families who will take their children on occasion to free up some time. Single moms need the help of young men who will play catch with their fatherless boys and take them to the school soccer game. They need men who will fix the brakes on the minivan and patch the leaky roof. On the other hand, single dads need someone who can help them nurture their children, and if they have a daughter, teach her how to be a lady.

Single parents need prayer partners who will hold them accountable in their walk with the Lord and bear their burdens with them. They need an extended family of believers to care for them, lift them up, and remind them of their priorities. Perhaps most important, single parents need to know that the Lord is mindful of their circumstances.

Clearly, I believe it is the responsibility of those of us in the church to assist you with your parenting responsibilities. This requirement is implicit in Jesus’ commandment that we love and support the needy in all walks of life. He said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). That puts things in perspective. Our efforts on behalf of a fatherless or motherless child are seen by Jesus Christ as a direct service to Himself!

This biblical assignment is even more explicitly stated in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”

Thankfully, churches today are becoming more sensitive to the needs of single parents. More congregations are offering programs and ministries geared to the unique concerns of those with particular needs. I’d advise all single parents to find such a church or fellowship group and make themselves at home there. Christian fellowship and support can be the key to survival.

From The Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James C. Dobson.

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