If you have more than one child, then you have experienced the fire and fury of sibling rivalry. Do any of these impassioned claims sound familiar?
The fact is that we cannot treat all of our children equally. Nor should we try. Each of them has a distinct place in the family system, and with it comes different expectations, privileges, responsibilities and freedoms.
When a sibling comes into the picture, the first kid is expected to give up sole custody of the two people who are most important to him, and no matter how you slice it, that feels like a raw deal. On top of that family resources are not infinite so it’s natural for siblings to feel they’re in competition with one another, and not only for your love and attention. There are likely battles and disagreements over who gets the last cookie, the new cell phone or latest pair of sneakers. There will be protests about why sibling seniority means having to babysit a little sister, take out the trash or walk the dog. Personalities play a role as well– your more assertive child gets labeled the one who “always gets their way” while your youngest child may be labeled the spoiled one.
Even though some root causes of sibling rivalry are inevitable: age, gender and birth order, others are not, and the ball is in your court on how to best resolve them. Tensions in your relationship with your spouse have a negative impact your kids — they pick up on the stress and act out, or mimic your combative behavior and get into fights with each other. Comparing one kid to another definitely sows seeds of resentment. (Sam learned to ride his bike when he was five, why are you having such trouble with it? Susan was able to stay home alone when she was ten, so you can too, right?)
Sibling discord is not all bad. It can be a golden opportunity to teach kids how to negotiate, reach compromise, voice their feelings and opinions and participate in democratic decision making. As the parent presiding over this democracy, you get to practice your leadership skills and help form a more perfect family union. Here are some guiding principles:
Let your kids know that learning to get along with their siblings is great training for learning how to get along with their colleagues and extended family members later in life. Kids who are able to accept their individual strengths and weaknesses, resolve conflicts and share resources make great co-workers, mates and relatives.
Writer Erica E. Goode puts it this way: “Sibling relationships – and 80 percent of Americans have at least one – outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust.”