The Scourge of Sibling Rivalry

If American parents were asked to indicate the most irritating feature of child-rearing, I’m convinced that sibling rivalry would get their unanimous vote. Children are not content just to hate each other in private. They attack one another like miniature warriors, mobilizing their troops and probing for weakness in the defensive line.

I know one child who so deeply resented being sick with a cold while his older sibling was healthy, that he secretly blew his nose on the mouthpiece of his brother’s musical instrument! The biggest loser from such combat is the harassed mother or father who must listen to the noise of the battlefield and then try to patch up the wounded.

Columnist Ann Landers recently asked her readers to respond to the question, “If you had known then what you know now, would you have had children?” Among 10,000 responding women, 70 percent said no! A subsequent survey by Good Housekeeping posed the same question, and 95 percent of the respondents answered yes. It is impossible to explain the contradictory results from these two inquiries, although the accompanying comments were enlightening. One unidentified woman wrote, “Would I have children again? A thousand times, NO! My children have completely destroyed my life, marriage, and identity as a person. There are no joys. Prayers don’t help–nothing stops a screaming kid.”

You Can Keep Peace in Your Home

It is my contention that something will stop a screaming kid or even a dozen of them. It is not necessary (or healthy) to allow children to destroy each other and make life miserable for the adults around them. Sibling rivalry is difficult to “cure” but it can certainly be treated. Toward that objective, let me offer three suggestions that should be helpful in achieving a state of armistice at home:

(1) Don’t inflame the natural jealousy of children. Sibling rivalry is not new. It was responsible for the first murder on record when Cain killed Abel. Since then, it has been represented in virtually every two-child family. The underlying source of this conflict emanates from old-fashioned jealousy and competition between children. Marguerite and Willard Beecher, writing in their book, Parents on the Run, expressed the inevitability of this struggle:

“It was once believed that if parents would explain to a child that he was having a little brother or sister, he would not resent it. He was told that his parents had enjoyed him so much that they wanted to increase their happiness. This was supposed to avoid jealous competition and rivalry. It did not work. Why should it?

“Needless to say, if a man tells his wife he has loved her so much that he now plans to bring another wife into the home to ‘increase his happiness,’ she would not be immune to jealousy. On the contrary, the fight would just begin–in exactly the same fashion as it does with children.”

If jealousy is so common, then, how can parents minimize the natural antagonism that children feel for their siblings? The first step is to avoid circumstances which compare them unfavorably with each other. Lecturer Bill Gothard has stated that the root of all feelings of inferiority in comparison. I agree. The question is not, “How am I doing?” It is, “How am I doing compared with John or Steven or Marion?” The issue is not how fast can I run, but who crosses the finish line first. A boy does not care how tall he is; he is vitally interested in “who is tallest.” Each child systematically measures himself against his peers and is tremendously sensitive to failure within his own family. Accordingly, parents should guard against comparative statements which routinely favor one child over another. This is particularly true in three areas.

First, children are extremely sensitive about their physical characteristics. It is highly inflammatory to commend one child at the expense of the other. Suppose, for example, that Sharon is permitted to hear the casual remark about her sister, “Betty is sure going to be a gorgeous girl.” The very fact that Sharon was not mentioned will probably establish the two girls as rivals. If there is a significant difference in beauty between the two, you can be assured that Sharon has already concluded, “Yeah, I’m the ugly one.” When her fears are then confirmed by her parents, resentment and jealousy are generated.

Beauty is the most significant factor in the self-esteem of Western children, as I attempted to express in my book Hide or Seek. Anything that a parent utters on this subject within the hearing of children should be screened carefully. It has the power to make brothers and sisters hate one another.

Second, the matter of relative intelligence is another sensitive nerve to be handled with care. It is not uncommon to hear parents say in front of their children, “I think the younger boy is actually brighter than his brother.” Adults find it difficult to comprehend how powerful that kind of assessment can be in a child’s mind. Even when the comments are unplanned and are spoken routinely, they convey how a child is “seen” within his family. We are all vulnerable to that bit of evidence.

Third, children (and especially boys) are extremely competitive with regard to athletic abilities. Those who are slower, weaker and less coordinated than their brothers are rarely able to accept “second best” with grace and dignity. Consider, for example, the following note given to me by the mother of two boys. It was written by her 9-year-old son to his 8-year-old brother, who had beaten him that day in a race.

Dear Jim,

I am the greatest and your the badest. And I can beat everybody in a race and you can’t beat anybody in a race. I’m the smartest and your the dumbest. I’m the best sports player and your the badest sports player. And your also a hog. I can beat anybody up. And that’s the truth. And that’s the end of this story.

Yours truly,

This note is humorous to me because Richard’s motive was so poorly disguised. He had been badly stung by his humiliation on the field of honor, so he came home and raised the battle flags. He probably spent the next eight weeks looking for opportunities to fire torpedoes into Jim’s soft underbelly. Such is the nature of mankind.

Am I suggesting that parents eliminate all aspects of individuality within family life or that healthy competition should be discouraged? Definitely not. I am saying that in matters relative to beauty, brains and athletic ability, each child should know that in his parent’s eyes, he is respected and has equal worth with his siblings. Praise and criticism at home should be distributed as evenly as possible, although some children will inevitably be more successful in the outside world.

And finally, we should remember that children do not build fortresses around strengths; they construct them to protect weaknesses. Thus, when a child like Richard begins to brag and attack his siblings, he is revealing threats he feels at that point. Our sensitivity to those signals will help minimize the potential for jealousy within our children.

(2) Establish a workable system of justice.

Sibling rivalry is also at its worst when there is no reasonable system of justice in the home–where the “lawbreakers” do not get caught, or if apprehended, never face a trial. It is important to understand that laws in a society are established and enforced for the purpose of protecting people from each other. Likewise, a family is a mini-society with the same requirement for protection of human rights.

For purposes of illustration, suppose that I live in a community where there is no established law. Policemen do not exist, and there are no courts where disagreements can be appealed.

Under those circumstances, my neighbor and I can abuse each other with impunity. He can take my lawn mower and throw rocks through my windows, while I steal the peaches from his favorite tree and dump my leaves over his fence. This kind of mutual antagonism has a way of escalating day by day.

As indicated, individual families are similar to societies in their need for law and order. In the absence of
justice, “neighboring” siblings begin to assault one another. The older child is bigger and tougher, which allows him to oppress his younger brothers and sisters. The junior member of the family retaliates by breaking prized possessions of the older sibling and by interfering when friends are visiting. Mutual hatred then erupts like an angry volcano, spewing its destructive contents on everyone in its path.

Nevertheless, when children appeal to their parents for intervention, they are often left to fight it out among themselves. In many homes, the parents do not have sufficient disciplinary control to enforce their judgments. In others, they are so exasperated with constant bickering among siblings that they refuse to get involved. In still others, parents require an older child to live with an admitted injustice “because your brother is smaller than you.” Thus, they tie his hands and render him utterly defenseless against the mischief of his bratty little brother or sister. Even more common today, mothers and fathers are both working while their children are at home busily disassembling each other.

I will say it again to parents: One of your most important responsibilities is to establish an equitable system of justice and a balance of power at home. Reasonable “laws” should be enforced fairly for each family member. For purposes of illustration, let me list the boundaries and rules that have evolved through the years in my own home:

Neither child is ever allowed to make fun of the other in a destructive way. Period! This is an inflexible rule with no exceptions.

Each child’s room is his private territory. There are locks on both doors, and permission to enter is a revocable privilege. (Families with more than one child in each bedroom can allocate available living space for each youngster.)

The older child is not permitted to tease the younger child. The younger child is forbidden to harass the older child.

The children are not required to play with each other when they prefer to be alone or with other friends. Any genuine conflict is mediated as quickly as possible, being careful to show impartiality and extreme fairness.

As with any system of justice? This plan requires respect for the leadership of the parent willingness by the parent to mediate, and occasional enforcement or punishment. When this approach is accompanied by love, the emotional tone of the home can be changed from one of hatred to at least tolerance.

(3) Recognize that the hidden “target” of sibling rivalry is you.

It would be naive to miss the true meaning of sibling conflict: It often represents a form of parental manipulation. Quarreling provides an opportunity for both children to “capture” adult attention. It has been written, “Some children would rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.” Toward this end, a pair of obnoxious kids can tacitly agree to bug their parents until they get a response–even if it is an angry reaction.

One father told me recently that his son and nephew began to argue and fight with their fists. Both fathers were nearby and decided to let the situation run its natural course. During the first lull, one of the boys glanced sideways toward the passive men and said, “Isn’t anybody going to stop us before we get hurt!” The fight, you see, was something neither boy wanted. Their violent combat was directly related to the presence of the two adults and would have taken a different form if the boys had been alone. Children will often “hook” their parent’s attention and intervention in this way.

Believe it or not, this form of sibling rivalry is easiest to control. The parent must simply render the behavior unprofitable to each participant. Instead of wringing their hands, crying, pleading or screaming (which actually reinforces the disruptive behavior and makes it worse), a mother or father should approach the conflict with dignity and self-control. I would recommend that a modified version of the following “speech” be given to quarreling children, depending on the age and circumstances:

“Tommy and Chuck, I want you to sit in these chairs and give me your complete attention. Now you both know that you have been irritating each other all morning. Tommy, you knocked over the castle that Chuck was building, and, Chuck, you messed up Tommy’s hair. Every few minutes, I’ve found myself telling you to quit quarreling. I’m not angry at you because all brothers fight like that, but I am telling you that I’m tired of hearing it. I have important things to do, and I can’t take the time to be separating a couple of scratching cats every few minutes.

“Now listen carefully. If the two of you want to pick on each other and make yourselves miserable, then be my guests (assuming there is a fairly equal balance of power between them). Go outside and fight until you’re exhausted. But it’s not going to occur under my feet, anymore. It’s over! And you know I mean business when I make that kind of statement. Do we understand each other?”

Would this implied warning end the conflict? Of course not–at least, not the first time. It would be necessary to deliver on the promise of “action.” Having made my intentions clear, I would act decisively the instant either boy returned to his bickering. If I had separate bedrooms, I would confine one child to each room for at least 30 minutes of complete boredom–no radio or television. Or I would assign one to clean the garage and the other to mow the lawn. Or I would make them both take a nap. My avowed purpose would be to make them believe me the next time I offered a suggestion for peace.

It is simply not necessary to permit children to destroy the joy in living, as expressed by the frustrated mother to Good Housekeeping. And most surprisingly, children are happiest when their parents enforce these reasonable limits with love and dignity.

A Final Thought

I was accompanied on a recent speaking trip by my wife, Shirley, which required us to leave our two children with their grandparents for a full week. My wife’s mother and father are wonderful people and dearly love Danae and Ryan. However, two bouncing, jumping, giggling little rascals can wear down the nerves of any adult, especially those who are approaching the age of retirement. When we returned home from the trip, I asked my father-in-law how the children behaved and whether or not they caused him any problems. He replied in his North Dakota (Lawrence Welk) accent, “Oh no! Dere good kids. But the important thing is, you jus’ got to keep ’em out in da open.”

That was probably the best disciplinary advice ever offered. Many behavioral problems can be prevented by simply avoiding the circumstances that create them. And especially for boys and girls growing up in our congested cities, perhaps what we need most is to “yet ’em out in da open.” It’s not a bad idea.