Dear Dr. Debbie,
What are some tips for reducing the rivalry between siblings? Our sons are 4 and 6 years old. Although at times they can play very nicely together, we often hear squabbling and tattling from them.
Don’t miss last week’s column Lonely at the school peanut allergy lunch table — Good Parenting
Being the parent of more than one child holds multiple challenges. Not only are you raising each individual person to achieve their full potential, at the same time you are guiding them in how to make the most of their relationship with each other. This, by the way, is the added value each child brings to the other’s childhood. There are lifelong social benefits to learning how to negotiate turns, space and one’s place in the family circle. A spouse, a co-worker and a citizen who has worked out a harmonious relationship with a sibling brings valuable give and take skills to his adulthood.
As the second of five siblings — most of us about two years apart — I have some recommendations for reducing the rivalry that inevitably occurs between siblings.
Clear Territory Divisions
If each sibling has his own room, this is where he should expect to be left alone. The resident has the authority to invite a sibling in or to deny permission to enter as he wishes. Even in a shared bedroom, there should be clear borders around personal space. A child’s own bed can be his refuge from the strife of the world. The wall next to his bed is his to decorate. In the case of a trundle bed, each can declare one wall of the room as his own. Similarly designate shelves, dresser drawers, a toy box and a side of the closet for each child’s things.
In a shared space, such as the playroom, family room or kitchen table, the child who is there first has the option to allow the sibling to join him in doing the same activity. The television, game console, play dough and other jointly owned objects are open to the first comer who can then decide if he wants to share what he’s doing with his brother. A parent can help negotiate dividing the space if it’s reasonable to be doing different activities in the same area of the house. An agreement about how to share the space prevents fussing that his brother’s car-racing is disturbing his video game playing.
When one child is entertaining a friend in any space of the house or yard, this should be treated as his own space. The sibling cannot join them unless he is invited. You may have to model and coach them if this has not been the custom. Model with: “I was going to vacuum in here, but I can see that you have the tracks all set up. I’ll come back later.” Coach with: “Jamie, let’s ask Jody if it’s all right to join him and Buddy with the racing tracks.” If necessary, help Jamie deal with the fact that it’s not all right. (This may require diverting him to an activity which includes your attention.)
Respecting Property Rights
Unlike the communal objects that any member of the family can use (and share with their guests), each person’s personal property must be safeguarded. Some of this is accomplished with agreed upon rules — if it’s in your brother’s private space, you have to ask permission. The more tempting items may need physical safeguards. Out of sight out of mind still works for a 4-year-old. A clever 6-year-old, however, may need additional measures to keep from sneaking into his brother’s precious treasures. The younger child might use your assistance to keep a special plaything in a place only you can access until such time as the older brother loses interest.
Please note that a new toy usually is more prized than a familiar toy (with the noted exception of a “lovey”). “Don’t even ask” may be the standing rule for a week following a birthday jack pot, giving the fortunate recipient time to bond with his gifts and decide which he will store in personal territory and which he is willing to give up to the communal good in the family’s shared spaces.
Fair Trades and Turns
Up until around age 7, children struggle with the notion that other people could have needs and feelings in conflict with their own. Because of this, adults need to stay close at hand to teach children how turns and trading work. Basically, they work to keep the rival out of the way of one’s pursuit of happiness. Depending on the situation, suggest that the pursuing child: get a similar object to attempt a trade, ask for a time limit (5 minutes at the most) or offer a way to use the object together. When two rivals arrive at a desired object at the same time, you can explain the logic behind “First turn or Long turn” (first turn is soon over, then the waiter can enjoy the object as long as he wants) and “Break or Take” (the breaker divides the coveted material — for example the box of markers — into as equal halves as he can, since his brother gets to choose which cache will be his). The goal of all your teaching about sharing is that the brothers will gain the ability to settle their own negotiations — with each other as well as all the other challengers they will have to share space, time and objects with the rest of their lives.
One on One with Each One
Carve out special time each day for each of your children. This could be time in the car, doing a household chore, helping him with his homework, bath time or bedtime. Alternate who comes along for the grocery shopping or who helps with the sock sorting or maintain a particular chore for the same child as long as he wants it. Of course if they both want the same one, then the popular chore gets rotated. During this precious alone time, your interest in his ever changing interests, friendships, dreams, observations and emotions will reveal an amazingly unique individual. Time alone helps you know how to parent him best. He also benefits from getting feedback from you about his perspective on things, which is a great preventative for the “attention deficit” aspect of sibling rivalry. Time spent with him as your primary focus counters the perception that his sibling is taking your attention away.
Scold and Praise in Private
Your greatest attentions to each child — both criticism and admiration — should never be done in the presence of his sibling. Any scolding, disappointment, worry or other negative attention should be done out of earshot of a child’s greatest rival. Otherwise there is a silent amplification of your negative remarks going on between the rival and the child in the hot spot. The “bad” child may decide to get even by doing something malicious to the brother who didn’t just get a dressing down by the high chiefs. By the same token, a child basking in the limelight of your praise, compliments, gratitude, etc. is silently assaulted by a rival’s menacing glare in his direction, which will later be expressed with belittling taunts or physical expressions of “you’re not so great!” in order to even the score.
Even with all your efforts to minimize their rivalry during childhood, siblings typically are engaged in a never-ending competition no matter where life takes them and what great accomplishments they each can claim. Despite the numerous and various relationships they will experience, and their knowledge of the achievements of countless heroes throughout history, siblings are always keeping tallies against each other. Trying to outdo his brother, by the way, can be a great motivator as each of your children sets personal and professional goals for himself. For now, coach them individually as needed, but try not to participate in their game.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com