It’s often been observed that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.
In the homeschool culture in which I was raised, it was typical to emphasize the importance of making your siblings your friends. In retrospect, I think this was (partly) in reaction to the narrative perpetuated by the mainstream culture—at the time—that emphasized the importance of peer relationships in developing independence and social skills.
Rather than spending their youth exclusively bonding with friends from one’s peer group through being thrown together all the time, in the public-, private-, and Sunday-school model, homeschoolers—in my day—tended to spend their childhoods bonding with parents’ friends, librarians, local officials, grocery store clerks, and a whole slew of other figures who quite naturally and organically filled in the margins of their lives.
Oh, and siblings. Above all, siblings were the prime source of friendships, because, well, there they were. They were always handy. (Sometimes a bit too handy. Absence scarcely had a chance to make the heart grow fonder.)
As a consequence of all this togetherness, I had ample opportunity to study the dynamic of family bonding as I grew up, and contrast my experiences and observations with the all-too-common narratives that portrayed family members as irritants, rivals, or even antagonists. It all worked out in my case, as I had a lot of fun with my siblings, made a ton of great memories, and definitely established friendships that should last a lifetime. But is the “siblings-as-your-best-friends” model objectively better than finding companionship and sympathy outside the familial cloister?
Certainly I want to encourage strong family bonds and good relationship skills in my children. I think it’s counter-productive to pit older children against younger children, just as I generally discourage mindless “boys against girls” stereotyping.
However, I also believe that the cultivation of age-appropriate friendships outside the family circle is a healthy diversion from so much togetherness. I think it’s important to know that there are people who like us by choice and not because they’re forced to be with us all the time.
Sometimes we just need a break from the same old routines. Childhood relationships can be challenging enough with the complex interplay of budding emotions, social misunderstandings, heartbreaks, and the waxing and waning of shared interests and goals. When all of this drama is limited to the confines of the family circle, it can bubble over into stress, confusion, and heartache. I think it’s so much better for the home to remain a haven of safety and comfort, where young children can retreat for acceptance and affirmation, rather than to function as the sole outlet for social interaction.
After all, if the daily drama spills over into everyday life, where can a sensitive child go in search of a little peace and quiet—to the privacy of his room? What if he shares a room with a sibling—say, the sibling who instigated the drama in the first place?
My kids aren’t each other’s best friends, and I wouldn’t want to force them to be. They are all different ages, they operate at different maturity levels, and they have distinctly different interests. They can learn a lot from each other, but I don’t expect them to depend on each other exclusively for validation or social confidence. That should come from a broad range of experiences and relationships.
I love my children, and I want the best for them. I want to encourage them to build a strong rapport with each other, but also have the freedom to step back and acknowledge the need for some personal space. As with all parenting endeavors, the cultivation of good friendships—both inside and outside the family unit—is still a work in progress. Learning to form strong, healthy relationships is a lifelong skill that must of necessity start young. As the old saying goes, “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver, and the other gold.”
One’s siblings may end up being one’s oldest friends. But they needn’t be one’s only friends.
Photo Credit: Graphic design by Charity Klicka.