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Sibling Wars

Tagging along (by a little sib)

Everything an older sib does can seem interesting to a curious, imitative younger one. After all, little kids learn by example. But it can also be annoying to have a baby trailing your every move  -- a baby whose very presence implies you're a baby yourself when you most certainly are not and don't want your visiting friends to think you are, either. "Moooom! Get him out of here!" What you can do about tagalongs:

Encourage patience. You won't do it by saying "Please be more patient," though. Instead, help your older child understand his younger sib's limits by asking him to help with babycare and talk up how many things he can do that the little guy can't.

Explain the younger sib's perspective: "He really wants to be like you." "She looks up to you."

Maintain a sib-free zone. Allow your older child some space of his own  -- a room, a certain part of the backyard, the basement  -- where he can play alone with friends. (Your job: Keep the younger kid out!)

Don't expect 24/7 togetherness. Make sure each kid has her own time, with you or her friends, without the other around. Even 20 minutes with a parent can make a younger sibling easier to bear.

Arrange double playdates. I've found it's often calmer, rather than more chaotic, when each child has a friend over at the same time.

Blows, accidental

A certain amount of physicality comes with children living in close proximity. Often older kids play with younger sibs the way they play with peers, which can be too rough. ("You don't know your own strength," my mother used to say to my brother after he wrestled a helpless, half-his-size sister over the TV Guide.) What to do about accidental blows:

Come up with a magic word. Tell them, "When someone says 'stop,' we all stop." That lets an older child know he's getting carried away.

Remember: Accidents happen. It's just not realistic to think there should be no physical play.

Blows, intentional

Sometimes siblings also poke, trip, pinch, and do worse on purpose. After all, no one knows you so well as your sister or brother, which means they also know exactly how to push your buttons. How do you keep everybody safe? Make sure your kids know that coming to blows or verbal assaults (like name-calling) fall into the "totally not okay" category. Don't wait for it to happen. Make clear what kind of behavior is not acceptable: "We use words instead of hitting." What you can do about intentional smack-downs:

Don't automatically make the slugger the sole villain. Often, a child has been pestered or teased repeatedly before finally lashing out. In that event, both kids are in the wrong. Let the pestered child know that it's best to tell Mom about the issue right away, before it escalates.

But do punish a hitter. Respond consistently and swiftly: Send her immediately to time-out, no discussion, no negotiation, every time and for every child.

For all their conflicts, most siblings do develop close ties. I don't know what I'd do without my big brother (the one who used to pummel me), and I hope my kids say the same about one another.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the coauthor of Bright From the Start.