Most of us go to heroic lengths to head off tensions between kids: We divvy up bags of M&M’s into precise portions, give artwork equal representation on the fridge, buy each child new sneakers when only one really needs them. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, none of these tactics guarantee harmony.
“Sibling rivalry is a redundant phrase — if you have siblings, you have rivalry,” says Susan Witt, Ph.d., professor of family and child development at the University of Akron. “My kids have actually fought over who gets to throw away the dryer lint!” Yet it’s not just children’s inherent sense of competition — or even jelousy or anger — that spurs confrontations. Sometimes, parents themselves unwittingly fan the flames of rivalry.
Here, common mistakes well-intentioned parents make-plus the right ways to handle sparring kids:
* Comparing. Most parents know to avoid unfavorable comparisons (“You’re such a slob! Why can’t you be neat like your brother?”). What we may not realize, however, is that even positive comments (“I see from homework that you’re a spelling whiz. just like your sister!” exacerbate problems between siblings Consciously or not. kids work hard at staking out their own territory, explains Kathy Thornburg, Ph.d., director of the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Children may feel resentful when parents push them into each other’s turf.”
Do your best to avoid any, comparisons, urges Thornburg. Instead measure up kids against themselves (“Last week you were afraid to go on the monkey bars, but look how high you climbed today!”), a great confidence booster.
* Labeling. It’s natural for kids to carve out their own niches, but when parents do so-labeling one child a scholar, the other an artist, for instance — animosity can arise. “I used to marvel at my younger daughter’s ability for playing soccer,” says Kathy Leis of Herndon, VA, mother of 17-year-old Liz and 12-year-old Julia. “I’d say things like, `I don’t know where she gets it. She really is the family athlete.'” One day, when Liz was acting unusually gruff toward her sister after a game, Leis asked what was wrong. “It turned out that Liz was acting up because she took my pleasure in Julia as a slam against her,” she says.
“By making one child the `expert,’ we not only create disharmony, we could stifle the other’s desire to venture into that territory,” says Adele Faber, co-author of Siblings Without Rivalry. “Let children know that all the doors are open, that there’s room in the family for two kids who excel in athletics.” Be prudent too, about gushing over one child in front of the other, particularly if the sibling not being complimented is sensitive.
* Insisting on sharing. Tempers flare when one sister constantly dips into the other’s hair supplies and parents respond with “Stop fighting, sisters should share.” Generosity is an important value but, says Witt, “parents need to first acknowledge that kids have private possessions. Boundaries foster respect.” This is why it’s wise for parents to give kids separate bedtimes, try to enroll them in different after-school activities, and there’s no longer a rival,” points out Thornburg.
The same lesson applies to kids’ friendships, as Susan Lipson, a Chicago mother of 12-year-old twin boys, learned the hard way. Once, her son Michael wasn’t invited to a rock concert with his brother, Jonathan, and a friend. Lipson called the friend, s mother to ask if Michael could go along. “In the weeks leading up to the concert,” she recalls, “Jonathan and his friends made Michael’s life so hellish that eventually he didn’t want to go to the concert. I never interfered again.”
* Letting one kid call the shots. Often, one sibling-usually the older — dominates decisions, from picking day-trip destinations to which color to paint the playroom. “I know it’s not fair, but we often defer to our fifteen-year-old because he’s more vocal and his interests are closer to ours,” admits one Alabama mother of two. The result in her family: an older child who’s sometimes snide to his 12-year-old brother as if he truly is superior.
Actively solicit input from younger or less assertive kids, ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you think?” or “How do you feel?” to help them voice their preferences. “There should be room for disagreement, but aim for consensus,” says Faber.
* Using kids as pawns. One day, my 5-year old announced she didn’t want the “stupid” aquarium I’d spent three days setting up. “Okay, I’ll give it to your brother,” I said. Annelise howled and begged me to change my mind, precisely the reaction I’d hoped for. Then Adam, 10, piped up: “No fair! I heard you say I could have it!” As if on cue, Annelise started singing, “I have a fish tank and yooooou don’t.” Flashing one of her megawatt grins at me, she added,”Right, Mommy?”
As I watched this scene unfold, I felt my stomach knotting. I, the mother who wants only peace, love, and understanding, had instigated the whole ugly mess. In the end, all I could do was apologize to Adam for misleading him, which calmed him down.
It’s not unusual for parents to use siblings, competitive streaks as a motivational tool, says Witt, especially when it comes to eating (“Finish your sandwich, or I’ll give it to your brother!”). But beware. Pitting children against one another can backfire.
* Playing referee. “Too many parents get embroiled in every dispute their kids have,” says Witt. This tends to be a no-win situation, since one child inevitably ends up thinking you’re taking sides. Older kids often assume that Mom is overprotective of the smaller, weaker sibling-a perception that may induce more teasing. For a little kid, Mom’s intervention may reinforce his view, and resentment, of the older child as a predator.
Assuming that one child isn’t bullying the other, resist the temptation to intrude advise experts. Instead, encourage kids to work things out. This eases rivalry and teaches kids how to negotiate. You might be surprised by the results.
I know I was. The other week, I overheard my kids squabbling in the living room. Adam wanted to watch Return of the Jedi; Annelise was demanding The Empire Strikes Back (the fact that they had already watched these videos 96 times didn’t matter). The rumblings of a full-scale battle were growing louder, but I held back. “You have to figure out this one on your own,” I called from the kitchen. You’re smart kids. You can do it.”
And they did. When I looked in on them, Adam was saying “We can see the other movie tomorrow” as they watched Annelise’s choice, cuddled under an afghan. I knew the moment was short, but it was very sweet indeed.