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Territorial Siblings: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our children are 5 1/2 years-old and almost two. We’re wondering if we should concede to the older one’s insistence that his little sister not get on his bed. They share a bedroom. They occasionally squabble about the amount of space each should get on the living room couch but they also climb on and hug each other without complaint. It’s probably a good time to set some family rules about this issue because we are expecting a third baby this spring.

Border Patrol


Dear B.P.,

Speaking as the second of five siblings, and having shared a bedroom throughout my childhood, I sympathize with your firstborn’s insistence on claiming his bed as his own space. The couch, in comparison, is a “public” space upon which the personal space around one’s body may at times need to be defended. Nonviolently of course.

A house full of siblings affords many opportunities to learn effective and considerate ways to get what one wants. Adults can make appropriate suggestions, gradually guiding the children to choose and use these strategies themselves.


Parents can help young children to live by rules that consistently safeguard personal space. A personal space, such as one’s bed, or one’s lap, is off limits unless the owner wishes to share it. On the other hand, a family space, such as the couch, is anyone’s until someone is on it.  

Some families assign consistent ownership of the chairs at the dining room table in order to minimize squabbling over where to sit just when everyone’s blood sugar is lowest.   

Likewise, the placement of specific car seats and booster seats for each child eliminates any arguing about who sits where in the car.

If the children share a closet or dresser, you can designate sides, shelves, and drawers so that it is easy for the children to learn where to find their own clothes. You can also teach them to leave a sibling’s clothes alone unless permission to wear something has been granted. (It’s good to establish this before the teen years when fluctuating fashion trends tempt siblings to rummage through each other’s wardrobe.)

In addition to clothes, identify specific places in the house for personal objects such as a toothbrush, a stuffed animal that helps a child to sleep, and other individually owned items. This way a child learns to place each item where it belongs when it’s not being used, and he needn’t worry about having to hunt for the object when he needs it. Assigned spaces help to avoid any confusion or conflict about an object’s rightful owner.


Assuming that your not-yet two-year-old is not yet verbally fluent, you will be doing a lot of the talking for her when it comes to sibling negotiations. Soon she will be able to formulate one or two-word requests, refusals, and agreements about the use of a shared territory. For now, stand behind her nods and head shakes to affirm her rights to the couch, the living room rug, and other shared spaces. Each time you offer up an appropriate on-the-spot conflict negotiation tool, your children will be reassured that in this family, there is a civil way to acquire and hold “public” property.

Start with the rule that the child occupying the desired property has the right to refuse a proposal.

1.“Suggest a space she’d like better.” This might get the couch sitter to accept a trade. It is up to the sibling who wishes to take over the couch to come up with a more attractive offer.

2. “Do you want to break or take?” The one who breaks up the whole territory into two sides (the rug, for example) will make the split as even as possible because the other person gets to choose her half. Since the logic behind splitting one space into two adequate halves is beyond young children’s reasoning ability, you’ll have to demonstrate this solution a few times. (Add a visible border between them, such as your body or a yardstick, for emphasis.)

3. “Ask her how many minutes she needs to finish her turn, and come back then.” One to three minutes is a good length of time to watch the minute hand of your watch or a nearby clock go around. Or activate the timer on your cell phone or Alexa. After a few days of your assistance, the children will be able to imitate your verbal command, or bypass the timer altogether since they don’t measure time very accurately anyway. In the absence of any technological assistance, I have seen children say what they think is an amount of time, such as “thirty-twoty”, and after agreement from the other party, treat this negotiated time period as a binding contract between them.

4. “One (or two) for you and one (or two) for me.” If the couch is neatly divided into two or four cushions, or the rug has a repeating pattern on it, you can demonstrate a concrete way to split a territory equally. Division doesn’t come up in the school curriculum until third grade, so they’ll have to trust you on this until they see with their own eyes that each child, indeed, ends up with plenty of space.

5. “First turn or long turn? Ask your brother if you could use the couch quickly (to dress your dolly), then give it right back so he can finish reading his book.” This strategy makes clear sense for two adults sharing one car. Who should use the car first: the one who has to pick up the dry cleaning or the one who has to drop off a package, return library books, get a haircut, and grocery shop?

6. “Write a schedule for using it.” A five-year-old is old enough to accept the authority of the written word, even if he can’t read all the words. Alternate turns can be posted denoting the hour, the day, or the week to show whose turn it is to claim the coveted spot by the front window to watch for Daddy’s return. Soon they’ll go right to the schedule instead of whining or fighting about it.

7. “Is there a way for two children to use it at the same time?” If you pause long enough after asking the question, the children will figure out a way to do it. A good example is using the rug jointly to lay out tracks for their trains or cars. (Cooperative effort is how most things get accomplished!) 

Rules and tools for personal and shared territory will be invaluable for your children at home and  in the wider world beyond.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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