Kramer often hears, “But I fought with my brothers and sisters all the time, and we turned out great.” She doesn’t disagree. Instead, she points out that in many sibling relationships, the rate of conflict can be high, but the fun times in the backyard and in the basement more than balance it out. This net-positive is what predicts a good relationship later in life. In contrast, siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cold and distant long term.
Before she began “More Fun with Sisters and Brothers,” Kramer had parents fill out questionnaires about their expectations for their children’s sibling interactions. The parents actually accepted conflict as a way of life for siblings; instead, what really troubled them was that their children so often just didn’t seem to care about each other. Their feeling toward their brother or sister was somewhere between blasé ambivalence and annoyance.
So Kramer’s program is unique in the field—she doesn’t attempt to teach children some kinder version of conflict mediation. Grownups have a hard enough time mastering those techniques—attentive listening, de-escalation, avoiding negative generalizations, offering compliments. Instead, the thrust of Kramer’s program is made in its title—getting siblings to enjoy playing together. The six hour-long sessions are meant to be a fun camp for siblings to attend. Most activities that kids have scheduled into their lives are age-segregated—siblings go off with children their own size. Here, they stick together.
In the first session, four papier-mâché hand puppets appear on a puppet stage. They announce they’re alien children from the planet Xandia. The clouds on Xandia produce rain whenever brothers and sisters argue, and the planet is at risk of flooding. The aliens have come to Earth to attend the camp with the human children, in order to learn how to have more fun together. All the children—alien and earthling—spend the next six sessions playing board games, creating art projects, role playing, and dancing to a custom-made rap song. They take home bedtime books and a board game set on Xandia.
Along the way, the children adopt a terminology for how to initiate play with their siblings, how to find activities they both like to do together, and how to gently decline when they’re not interested. They consciously role play these steps. What these steps are called (Stop, Think, and Talk) probably isn’t important; what’s crucial is the kids are given a way to bridge the age-divide, so the older child doesn’t always end up in a bossy role. During one of the sessions, the children are visited by an annoying woman in trench coat named Miss Busy Bossy—she’s a clownlike caricature of a boss, too busy to even put down her cell phone. The children teach her to be less bossy.
Many of the games and art projects teach the kids to recognize the feelings being broadcast in the faces of their siblings. The catchphrase they’re taught is, “See it your way, see it my way.” They draw these facial expressions on paper plate masks, then listen to stories and hold up the masks that correspond to how each child in the story would be feeling.
Kramer has fine-tuned her scripts for the sessions over the years, but probably the most innovative aspect of her program isn’t in those details—it’s that she focuses on the children at all. Other scholars assumed that four-year-olds were too young, so they directed their training at parents, trying to coach them how to respond to sibling fights. In Kramer’s program, fewer fights are the consequence of teaching the children the proactive skills of initiating play on terms they can both enjoy. It’s conflict prevention, not conflict resolution. Parents are mere facilitators; when back at home, their job is to reinforce the rule that the kids should use their steps together to work it out, without the parents’ help.
Kramer’s program is effective, by every measure. The before-and-after videotapes of the kids playing at home reveal more positive, mutual involvement, and the parent questionnaires indicate the parents spend less time breaking up arguments between the kids. The children seem to enjoy the camp, but an hour never goes by without at least one classic display of sibling tension, as the older child turns controlling, or the younger plays the provocateur. In fact, the entire premise of the camp—the idea that brothers and sisters should enjoy one another—is an objective not all kids are ready to accept.
“I have two special talents,” seven-year-old Ethan announced to the instructors and the children in the program. “The first is soccer with my dad. The second is I’m really good at beating people up. When I beat my sister up, it makes me feel good.”
His four-year-old sister, Sofia, sat not more than two feet away from him as he said this. But she didn’t react to his shocking claim.
The truth was that Ethan had never actually hit his sister, who was half his size. Instead, he often fretted that she was so tiny that he might accidentally hurt her. But that session, Ethan seemed to delight in being verbally cruel to Sofia. He mocked her—loudly protesting when an instructor helped her read aloud. He said he didn’t want a younger sister: “She wants to play princess, and she always wants me to be the prince, but I want to play ninja. Right now, she’s really annoying, and not a worthy opponent.”
At the end of the session, Ethan’s mother confronted him in the hallway, demanding an explanation. Ethan made a particularly insightful point: “But Mom, it’s not cool to like a little sister.”
Ethan was convinced he had to act mean toward Sofia. He couldn’t let the other older siblings in the program know that he liked his sister—thus the false brag about beating her up.
Curious about how Ethan and Sofia really got along, we sat down with Kramer to watch the videotape of them at home. Over the half-hour, Ethan led Sofia in the construction of a fort made of couch cushions. The tension was excruciating; it felt like a scene out of film noir—a banal little event that could explode into tragedy at any moment.
Designating himself construction manager, Ethan bossed the four-year-old around constantly. He yelled and chided her when she couldn’t hold a cushion perfectly straight. When she wanted to leave for a snack, Ethan threatened, “If you do one more thing—you’ll lose your job and you can’t come back.” When Sofia misunderstood something, the seven-year-old snapped, “No excuses! There are no excuses! You can only keep your job if you promise never, ever to make up an excuse ever again. And don’t talk with your mouth full!”
However, Kramer actually saw a lot of hope in the tape. Without question, Ethan berated his sister—but the two kids had chosen, on their own, to play together, and they remained engaged in joint play the entire time. They didn’t hit each other. They kept talking. Ethan threatened his sister, but he changed the rules so she could keep playing. He made an effort to help Sofia understand she had an important role in the game. When he stopped ordering her around, Sofia would ask him for guidance—which he delighted in. When Sofia tried to drag a big cushion to the fort, Ethan said, “Good job,” then came over to help her.
“The kids are still connected,” Kramer ultimately concluded. “There’s an attempt to manage conflict. The kids like each other—they are looking out for each other. I think there’s a lot to work with.” She had not yet scored this tape, but at a glance she estimated it would rate a 50 out of 100—an equal balance of negative and positive moments. “I would imagine, in their tape after the program, they’ll be around a 70.”
So if Ethan actually liked his sister, where was he getting the message that it was uncool and he had to hide it? Ethan’s mother, Rebecca, pointed out that Ethan’s best friends all were nice to their little brothers and sisters. It wasn’t coming from them. She believed Ethan was picking up the message from the books he was reading. He was an exceedingly gifted reader and consumed books constantly.
Rebecca was reticent to mention her theory, afraid it might come off that she was looking for a scapegoat. However, Kramer’s research suggests that Rebecca may be right on target. In one of her studies, Kramer had a control group of kids come in for six weeks of reading books aloud and discussing cartoons that depicted sibling story lines. These were typical products any parent might share with his kids, hoping they would help the kids get along better—the Berenstain Bears series, Sesame Street books, and the like. Kramer figured these kids’ relationships with their siblings would improve, but she crossed her fingers that they wouldn’t improve more than the kids in her program.
But Kramer started getting complaints from parents after just a couple weeks. While the books and videos always ended on a happy note, with siblings learning to value and appreciate each other, the first half of the stories portrayed in vivid detail ways that children can fight, insult, and devalue their siblings. “From these books, the kids were learning novel ways to be mean to their younger siblings they’d never considered,” Kramer recalled. Sure enough, after six weeks, the sibling relationship quality had plummeted.
Kramer went on to analyze 261 common children’s books that portray sibling relationships. These ranged from picture books for preschoolers to chapter books for third graders. Kramer scored the books as she might score a videotape of kids playing together. She noted the number of times a sibling argued, threatened, excluded, and teased, as well as the positive moments of sharing, affection, problem-solving, and inclusion. The average book demonstrated virtually as many negative behaviors as positive ones. Despite all but one being overtly crafted to have a happy ending, along the way kids were constantly taunting each other, belittling a sib, and blaming others for their wrongdoing.