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Building sibling love through shared activities

The relationship is too precious to leave to chance and it helps to create opportunities for them to bond

When my seven-year-old daughter goes to bed, she has an "emergency bag" beside her.

She proudly showed me the contents of her bag several weeks ago: a pair of shorts (in case she wants to change out of her long pants if the night gets too warm), a pair of long pants (in case she wears shorts to bed), fuzzy socks and hand warmers (in case the night gets too chilly).

Hearing her spiel, her 11-year-old brother shook his head and proceeded to climb to the top of their shared bunk bed, muttering: "Why on earth do you need to be so prepared?"

Soon after, from the top bunk, he called out: "Oh, I forgot to put my spectacles on the table" followed by "Can you take my book down too?" and "I can't find my eye patch." (He likes complete darkness when he sleeps).

Another case in point, she makes to-do lists for various things while he tells me not to buy him the school diary since he doesn't plan to write in it anyway.

While one child thrives on being prepared for every situation, the other relishes flying by the seat of his pants.

The differences in their personalities have made for many arguments. Throw in the usual sibling rivalry and some days I feel like I quit my job just to be home to break up their fights.

Other times, I listen to them bicker, tell myself "don't interfere", and shut my door on them until they are done.

I'm bracing myself for more as their 15-month-old sister is starting to make herself heard too.

But even as the older two argue, I know that there are times they play well together. So aside from breaking up their spats, I try my best to create opportunities for them to play together.

Hopefully, maximising the good times they have will act as a buffer for when they do fight.

SHARED EXPERIENCES

We make it a point to go on family vacations just on our own, where they have only each other for playmates.

We took them to an adventure park in Penang during the March holidays and they both tried and thoroughly enjoyed the high element challenges.

After the trip, my son, who usually beats his younger sister at physical activities, told me grudgingly: "I have to admit Meimei's pretty good at the climbing stuff."

I know the shared experience bonds them because I still hear them telling each other, "Remember when you were stuck during the flying fox", or "Remember when mummy wanted to look at street art and we saw just one and stopped after that".

Being in the same school also helps because they trade stories on teachers they have in common or the food in the canteen.

COMMON GROUND

Spending time together doesn't have to take place only on an overseas vacation. During exam periods, when there are no extra classes or activities, they get to spend an extended amount of time together.

Or when their papa and I go grocery shopping, they sometimes prefer to hang out at the library or the bookstore instead of tagging along with us. It means that they have just each other for company and have to look out for each other. I know my son enjoys being the leader, getting Meimei to go along with his shenanigans. Somehow when it is just them against the world, they get along fine.

FINDING ACTIVITIES BOTH ENJOY

With siblings of different gender, toys such as dolls are out of the question, especially when the boy is the older child. The trick is finding things that both enjoy despite the three-year age gap.

So they mostly keep to gender- neutral games such as Lego or do art and crafts. The games they play change through the years. What keeps them occupied now includes Monopoly (both the board game and the card version), water- related science experiments and spinning games such as Beyblade.

When the mood strikes, they sometimes have a Nerf gun battle, shooting at plastic bottle targets. My daughter has a purple, pink and white one, with matching bullets, gifted by her brother a few years ago in hopes that she would play with him.

While the books they read are largely different, they love thumbing through the hand-me- down copies of Young Scientist from my cousin and reading each other interesting facts.

RECOGNISE POSITIVE ACTS

When they do nice things for each other, I make sure to point it out to them, to remind them that even though they may get on each other's nerves at times, there are other times when one child is especially thoughtful or helpful to the other.

For instance, my daughter chipped in to prepare for her brother's birthday party, while he helped to teach her spelling when I was busy.

Hopefully, constant reminders of little kind acts will take the edge off when one child is feeling annoyed by the other.

LIMIT SCREEN TIME

When the option of screen time is taken away from them or when they have reached the limit for the day, they sometimes turn to each other and ask what they should play.

And when they do play well together, I bend rules such as bedtime and give them more time to continue playing.

Sibling fights are inevitable, but we try to minimise the rivalry by being fair - so if any punishment is meted out, both get it because it takes two hands to clap.

I also try to give each child individual attention because they act out less when they are secure and happy.

And I try to milk their differences by showing them how it can be a good thing. For instance, my daughter's stash of wet wipes or plasters has proven useful when her brother needed them.

There are siblings who get along fabulously and need no help from their parents.

Then there are some who may fight through their childhood, but become close as adults.

And there are yet others who never get along.

A sibling relationship is too precious to leave to chance. Since they are not best friends by default, the next best thing is to help them get along, by design.

As the saying goes, don't wait for it to happen, make it happen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'Building sibling love through shared activities'. Print Edition | Subscribe