My five children don’t have to look past their bedroom doors to know who their neighbor is. He lives in the bunkbed above or she sleeps in the crib across the room. Sibling relationships provide one of our earliest opportunities to learn what it means to love one another.

Having grown up in a large family myself, I sympathize with the challenges of sharing a bedroom with a sister. It isn’t easy when one habitually leaves her clothes scattered on the floor and the other likes everything to not only have a place but be found in its place. Not only did my sister Becky and I share a bedroom, but we also took turns doing the laundry. One day, our clothes came out of the dryer with streaks of purple on them because my sister forgot to take a purple crayon out of her pocket before tossing her pants into the load. I remember making the difficult choice to love and forgive my younger sister when my initial response was anger and resentment.

Memories like this one help me to understand what’s at stake when one of my sons wants to sleep with a light on and another one wants to sleep with the light off. One son’s extremely active imagination turns every shadow and image in the room into something scary and has a history of nightmares that adds to his distress. He prefers to sleep with as many lights on as possible. The light that helps one child distresses his brother, who struggles to fall asleep with any extra noise or light.

Perhaps the easiest solution is to separate the boys into two rooms, and maybe one day we will. However, while my husband Scott and I try various compromises with nightlights and reading lamps, we also address our sons’ hearts.

Are our children being patient with one another’s struggles and weaknesses? Is compassion functioning or not? Are they able to sympathize and see the other’s perspective? Will they consider the interests of the other? Sharing spaces with others provides opportunities to love one another practically. These sibling experiences and conversations are preparing and equipping our children to love others outside our home.

As we help our children navigate their relationships with one another, Scott and I do so recognizing that they may or may not be truly converted. We’re teaching them concepts and principles, but only the Holy Spirit breathes new life into them, illuminates God’s Word, and transforms their minds and hearts. Our responsibility is to teach and instruct them, model the Christian life in front of them, pray for them, and faithfully point them to Jesus and the gospel.

Teaching and Instruction: Our Words Matter

First, words matter. While my husband and I want our children to be “nice” to each other, we want more than that for them. We want them to be humble, patient, compassionate, generous, holy, loving, considerate, and kind. These last two biblical terms are ones that we frequently use with our children: “consideration” and “kindness.”

We address consideration from the context of Philippians 2 in which Paul describes the humility of Christ. Following his example, we are to:

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV).

A different translation uses “consider” instead of “count others,” but the idea is the same. Christians are to consider other people and their interests. Practically speaking, how we think about one another impacts how we speak and act towards one another. Instead of looking down on a brother or sister for his or her weakness, we should bear with weakness and show mercy and compassion. We should defer to the needs and desires of others. We ought to pursue the good of others.

Another word we use in our home is “kindness,” one of the fruits of the Spirit.[1] We ask our children as they relate to one another, “Are you speaking kindly? Are you acting kindly?” Sometimes we talk about what kindness might look like in a given situation. Friends of ours help their children role-play different scenarios.

Model the Christian Life

We can’t expect our children to love one another well if they don’t see what love looks like. Our words matter, but our example matters just as much or more. Our children watch and listen to how we speak and act towards others. Do we use gentle and patient words? Do we listen carefully? Fundamentally, do we believe God’s Word and seek to love one another?

Paul reminds Timothy, his “beloved child”[2] in the faith, of the faith that “dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice” (2 Tim. 1:5). Timothy saw a pattern of faithful living in his home that nurtured the development of his own faith. If we as parents live by faith, our children will notice. If not, our children will quickly see through our hypocrisy. As 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, words spoken without love will simply sound like loud noise to our children.[3] John says something similar when he writes, “let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Pray for Our Children

Scott and I know we can’t save our children from sins like selfishness and pride any more than we can save ourselves. Only God saves. But we can pray for them. In a similar way, we can’t force our children’s heart attitudes towards one another to change. We can’t force our sons to see their younger sister’s perspective. But after we try to help them understand, we pray for them.

Prayer expresses humble dependence on God. We look at God and acknowledge his holiness, majesty, power, sovereignty, and worth. We recognize that he is God and we aren’t, and there are things that only he can do. We ask him to do things that are impossible for us, including change in the hearts of our children.

From Scripture, we know this kind of faith-filled, humble dependence pleases God:

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).

We regularly draw near to God in prayer on behalf of our children, believing he exists and rewards those who seek him. This promise doesn’t depend on us saying just the right words; it rests on the faithfulness of God.

Point Them to Jesus and the Gospel

If we lean only on our own words, methods, and example to change the hearts of our children, they’re susceptible to legalism, hypocrisy, and disillusionment. It isn’t long before our children realize that we’re flawed. Our love for others always falls short; it’s imperfect and incomplete. At the end of the day, especially when we’ve failed our kids by speaking harshly, living distracted, or in some other way missing the mark as parents, we point our children to Jesus. We remind ourselves and them that when we’re unloving to one another, there’s one ready to forgive us. He’s the one who enables us to forgive one another.

Jesus’ love never fails. He loves us and our children perfectly. His love, ultimately displayed sacrificially on the cross, is our only hope—and our children’s only hope—to love one another. As John says, “we love because he first loved us” and “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:19 and 4:11).

Our words matter. Our children see how we model love for one another. We pray and ask God to transform hearts. We point our children to Jesus and the Gospel. When most of the lights are turned off but one remains on, it’s about something so much more than a bedroom nightlight. Bundled under the covers are brothers learning to love.

Editors Note: If you enjoyed this article, you will love Katie Faris’ book, Loving My Children, available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other retailers.

[1] Gal. 5:22-23

[2] 2 Tim. 1:2

[3] 1 Cor. 13:1