This house is a constant, wild cacophony of dart gun wars, impromptu karaoke and teenage meltdowns. Gabe and I sometimes forget that most “normal” families don’t have a matched set of Bigs, Middles and Littles, three boys and three girls in nearly perfect stair-stepped order. Most families don’t consume three gallons of milk a week or get cartons of toilet paper shipped to the house.
We are often so busy with the care and feeding and driving of the troops, that the truth is, often we forget we’re not most families.
Because the children are all generally tall and sport varying shades of brown hair, casual observers often assume we always planned to be a family of eight. Once, our seatmate on a plane asked if Gabe and I minded if she ordered a cocktail. When we assured her we thought everyone on board should be ordering drinks before a five-hour flight with our crew, and asked what prompted her question, she paused, and after a pointed glance at our six, explained she thought we “might be religious.”
I think the main reason people often assume this six-pack has been together all their lives is because of how they interact. To be clear, they do not exude love and kindness to each other every waking minute. These are not the siblings of matching holiday pajama ads. But, after years together, a hefty dose of luck and a bit of coordination, the six children in our family get along in the same way siblings in a first family do. These six often enjoy and generally tolerate each other, much to our collective relief as their parents.
Thinking back, I think our relative success in this area is due to five conscious decisions we made to foster sibling relationships in our blended family.
We don’t force full-family time.
Except for our daily dinner together and the occasional mandated holiday appearance, we don’t require every kid to participate in every planned family. Apple picking this weekend sounded like fun to five and the sixth felt differently. Time on the water in the summer generally appeals to everyone, but early mornings at the farmers’ market don’t.
Our kids have say in how and when they participate, even when it is not particularly comfortable. Caden often chooses not to participate in extended family gatherings with Gabe’s family. He’s overwhelmed by the number of people and unfamiliar with some of their most closely held traditions. Simon chose to work this summer as a camp counselor during the week we planned our family camping trip; he wasn’t particularly excited by the idea of eight of us and the dog in the RV for the week, and at sixteen, wants to be in constant contact with his friends.
In both of these examples, I wish our situation were different. I love for our family of eight to be together. But, I’ve learned the hard way, more than once, that forcing a kid to participate in a blended family activity he isn’t comfortable with usually ends in disaster. For me, for the kid in question, and for everyone else.
We structure time apart.
Each of our sets of children is on a week-on, week-off schedule with their other parent, and we intentionally structure access to ensure that kids aren’t overlapping with step-siblings 100% of the time. Our children typically overlap half the time they’re at home.
Our schedule allows kid together time to be something that kids look forward to in the best case, and know is coming to an end in the worst. Gabe’s children don’t compete with mine for his attention every day they’re here, and can experience me as a stepparent rather than a mom. The same is true for my three.
Our planned time apart goes beyond our custody schedule. We often naturally spend time together in separate, smaller groups. Simon, Jack and Gabe might attend Jack’s soccer game on Saturday morning while Caden and the girls and I run errands.
The groups vary, but the effects do not. Time spent away with one part of our family and coming home to another allows us all grace.
We honor privacy.
The children each have a space to retreat when this swirling life in progress gets to be too much. We respect that, and allow kids to be in their rooms without their siblings whenever they like. Much to his chagrin, Jack can’t enter Caden’s room unless he is invited, and vice versa. That rule applies to everyone else in the house too.
Toys in the playroom are fair game, but no one is expected to share his or her personal favorites. Pictures can’t be taken or posted without permission. Boundaries between siblings are clear around here, and that matters.
Again, safety trumps privacy. Gabe and I enter rooms and check phones and drawers just like every other parent on the planet. We simply don’t extend that parental privilege to the under-18 set.
We don’t allow back-channeling.
Have a problem with your step-sibling? The kids around here know that you’ll be asked to talk about with that person first, and then both parents.
Gabe and I now take a team approach to conflict-resolution. During our early years, we huddled in corners with our respective children and tried to work it out between the two of us adults. That was disastrous. We ended those discussions feeling defensive and angry, and no closer to a solution.
Now, kids in conflict have to come to both of us and talk through the situation in front of each other. This team approach works much better, and (surprise!) often yields the truth much faster.
We try not to overthink it.
We want very much for our family to be strong and bonded and full of love. Sometimes I wonder if I want that more now, after the painful end to our first family. It can be hard not to take every fight or unkind word to heart, and believe we’re miles from our goal. But the truth is, first families have their share of sibling squabbles and hurt feelings. When we’re concerned about how bonded our group is or who is opting out of what, we remember that no group of six children gets along all the time. We focus on what’s working well and move forward.
Tell me, how do you foster strong sibling relationships in your blended family?