Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our two boys are about 3 ½ years apart. Since the little one turned two he always wants to do what his big brother is doing. He comes to tears when Daddy and I don’t let him take a turn on the chrome book – which his brother needs for school. He even gets upset that it’s not his job to bring the empty trash cans up to the house after a family walk – which is his brother’s job. He probably couldn’t even do it if we let him, but the point is that this is a job, much like the chrome book, that belongs to Big Brother.
Wait Three Years
It’s very hard for a two-year-old to watch another child – especially the one he sees every day –get to do things that he isn’t permitted to do.
Help both children respect ownership of personal property (or in the case of the school’s property, anything one child must be personally responsible for). It might seem easy to let one brother use something when the other one is asleep or out of the house, but this can erode trust. When you teach the older one that he’ll have to wait to ask his younger brother for permission to use a personal belonging, he can reason that you would do the same for his belongings. That builds his trust in you, and trains him to respect his brother’s toys, clothes, etc. Around age three your younger son will likewise want to claim objects as belonging to him alone, but until then you can establish and enforce those items that belong to one or the other and help to secure them as such.(Read here about setting territorial boundaries for siblings).
Similarly household chores can be divvied up among household members in a way that is equitable for each person’s abilities. It might help if there’s a “chore time” when everyone has something important to do for the house. This could be done in parent-child pairs considering your children’s ages. This way no one (specifically Little Brother) has to stand by watching and feel left out. Chore time is a great habit to establish at young ages when children are eager to help out, even if they don’t do as good a job as an adult might. For example, after dinner the little one can load all the unbreakables into the dishwasher (while you take care of the other dirty dishes) and Big Brother can learn to sweep the floor under Daddy’s tutelage.
Out of Sight Out of Mind
Try to minimize your two-year-old’s frustrations by setting a discreet time and place for Big Brother to use the chrome book or anything else he wants to do that is “not allowed” for the little one. Two-year-olds, and even three-year-olds, are typically only concerned about things in their field of view. If the chrome book must be used while Little Brother is in the same room, first get him busy with something else. Teach the older child to wait until his brother is engrossed in play – with you helping to keep him occupied – before the chrome book comes out. Something that’s like a chrome book would work best – an Etch a Sketch, a non-working laptop, or any one of the many toddler computer toys that uses a keyboard to make an effect on a screen, so he can feel like he can indeed follow his brother’s example.
Instead of having the trashcan chore at the end of a family walk, take care of this at a time when Little Brother isn’t around to watch. Or scoot him in ahead with you and let Daddy and Big Brother be alone for this task. Big Brother may be getting accolades from one parent or another as he completes this big job, which naturally causes jealously in a sibling. Little Brother sees his brother getting praise from praiseworthy actions and craves that attention for himself. Siblings tend to compare themselves to each other from early childhood on. This can lead to acts of revenge as soon as parents aren’t watching. Try to remember to always praise and criticize privately.
Add Chores and Privileges
Acknowledge your second-born’s increasing abilities by keeping up with added responsibilities. Let him know that you see how strong, careful, conscientious, etc. he is becoming. Between a first-born and a second born, parents may tend to continue to see the older one as amazingly competent and the latter born as adorably inept. We tend to expect more of first borns, and less of later borns, even when the younger one reaches the age at which the older one amazed us with his abilities.
Some families use birthdays to add privileges for a child so that they are given out fairly – at least in the siblings’ eyes. For example, maybe age six is the age when you start (discreetly) giving him an allowance. Or maybe age seven is when your older child can walk all the way to school without you. Children see themselves as entitled to the same benefits under the governance of the family – namely the parents – and there are some rules, even for states and countries, that depend on age.
As the parent of more than one child you are certainly aware that they have unique traits. When you foster individuality you reduce your second son’s obsession with trying to be just like his brother. Support his discovery of favorite foods, favorite songs, favorite story books, favorite places to go, and favorite ways to play. In a few years both boys will develop interests that will further help to distinguish them from each other. Family hobbies are great, but there’s a world of interests and activities that await each child.
Find a balance between absolutely equal treatment – sometimes with a three-year gap – and helping each brother develop an individual identity apart from his sibling.
Your second born sees his Big Brother as the primary example of what he can be. Help him know how wonderful it can be to be himself.
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