Over the past three years I've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about sisters. My new novel, "The Pretty One," is about three grown ones who find their family identities in flux after their mother is hurt in a freak car accident. But what the book is really about is the strange brew of loyalty, resentment, love and envy that characterizes sister relationships. In real life, I'm the youngest of three sisters -- and the mother of two young daughters, age 4 1/2 and 6 1/2, who can be found snuggling when not trying to choke each other's tiny necks. I'm not a psychologist, but here's what I've learned:
1. Don't compare your daughters' achievements, however small -- i.e. "Penelope ate all her peas. Why didn't you?" Don't compare the big victories, either -- i.e. "Your sister managed to get all A's and still find time to start a non-profit foundation for the betterment of Rwandan orphans. What's your problem?" Your daughters will experience near-debilitating levels of competitiveness with one another without you saying a word. By holding up one's behavior against the other, you'll only make the natural antagonism worse. Also, just because people are born to the same parent doesn't mean they have anything in common personality-wise. Apples can be compared with apples; there's no point comparing them to oranges.
2. Avoid labeling. The Pretty One. The Smart One. The Athletic One. The Funny One. The Perfect One. The Spoiled One. Etc. It's hard to avoid getting labeled while growing up, but the last thing a child needs is to hear it from her own parents, who presumably know her better than anyone. Childhood and especially adolescence are all about figuring out who you are. By providing our daughters with the answer before they know it themselves, we risk limiting their growth and development -- along with their happiness. For example, if your daughter is made to believe she's "The Pretty One," she may avoid pushing herself academically, believing that her sister, not she, is "good at school." Alternately, if she's constantly being told she's "The Funny One," when forced to deal with a setback she may feel as if she's not allowed to be sad -- and struggle accordingly.
3. Tell them how proud you are. Childhood is also a time of insecurity -- and Mommy or Daddy's (aka God's) kudos and positive reinforcement still mean the world, even if your daughters are old enough to think or pretend they no longer care what you think. Just be sure you lavish the praise evenly. My late father awarded all three of his daughters the same nickname: "Beautiful." Superficial, sure, but we were never the worse for it. Moreover, if one of your daughters is seemingly better at everything, find moments when the other is excelling and tell her how proud she makes you. Besides, sometimes compliments have a way of being self-fulfilling.
4. Encourage different extra-curriculars. If one daughter shows a natural inclination for the flute, start the other on the French horn. If one likes soccer, encourage the other to play field hockey. Venus and Serena Williams notwithstanding, what you don't want is both your daughters to end up on the Varsity tennis team, battling each other for the First Singles spot. (Or shoulder to shoulder on the track field when the gun goes off.) Key to your daughters' forming their own identities is for each to have a unique set of interests and talents. Differentiation will also serve as a natural inhibitor to rivalry.
5. Spend time with each separately. Even if your work schedule makes "family time" a precious commodity, or you have another baby to look after, carve out a little time each week to spend with each daughter separately. Lavish mother-daughter spa weekends at Canyon Ranch aren't necessary. Instead, find a 15-minute window and, with daughter no. 1 or 2 in tow, grab a hot chocolate or whoopee pie at your local bakery and pull up a stool. Everyone needs to feel special sometimes. Always being with your sibling -- which is to say, feeling like one half of a whole -- makes that goal difficult.
6. Don't take sides. When your daughters fight -- and fight they will -- don't always assume that the one crying or screaming the loudest is the victim. Unless there are obvious bite/burn marks, assume that both contributed equally to the melee and both are to be blamed (and punished accordingly). If they're still young, remind them in a firm tone that using their fists, nails, teeth or feet when they get mad is unacceptable. If they're older, and unless the situation gets out of control, let them work it out for themselves. Either way, insist that the antagonists separate and play or hang out by themselves. Which leads me to no. 7...
7. Divide and conquer. Everyone needs alone time, including your daughters and especially on weekends and holidays when there's no school to break up the day. On weekends, designate an hour when everyone has to do something by herself, if not on a separate floor, then at least in separate rooms. If your daughters share a bedroom, they can alternate weekends as to who gets to stay and who has to go. Even if they haven't been fighting, separation will make the time your daughters do spend together that much more simpatico.
8. Promote shared activities. Your daughters will also benefit from having interests and activities in common, even if that means watching each other play Plants vs. Zombies on the family iPad. (At least they'll be sitting side by side.) Some psychologists have posited that sibling relationships, especially when the siblings are close in age, are essentially first marriages. As such, your daughters need each other to learn the fine art of compromise, of taking turns, and of fighting over who left hair affixed to the shower drain.
9. Limit the hand-me-downs. Sure, it's economical to pass down Daisy's jean jacket that she only wore one season, but doesn't Dahlia deserve a few garments that a. aren't covered with blood, grease and paint stains; and b. don't remind her every second of the day of her older sis? For many, if not all girls, clothes are about as important as air and food. Even if we're talking about three-for-$10 socks from Target, younger sisters also deserve the occasional new items with which to establish their own looks.
10. Don't pick favorites. It's only human to find some personalities easier to get along with than others. But when it comes to your daughters, even if one is a huge pain in the butt and the other is pure sunshine, recognize that each is special in her own way and, at the same time, part of you -- and try to love and treat them both equally. This also means not making one your confidant, or beginning sentences, "Don't tell your sister but..." Your secret won't last -- the sister you told will likely boast about her knowledge to the one you didn't tell -- and the latter will believe you love her sister more than you love her. If that's not true, save your confessions for someone your own age. More generally, keep in mind that, until they achieve financial independence, and as much as you love them, your daughters are not your best friends.