Sibling rivalry: navigating the “whys” and “nevers”

“I never get to pick!” “How come Nathan gets to stay up later?” “Gimme that. It’s my turn!” Never does the old saying, “It always looks greener on the other side of the fence,” hold more true than among brothers and sisters. Someone else always seems to be getting a better deal. Frustrating as it is for both kids and parents, sibling rivalry can also bring big positives.

Karen Bilich, writing for Parents magazine, notes that “Sibling rivalry can be at its worst when both children are under 4 years of age -- especially when they are less than three years apart.” And it can start early. Once a baby begins to crawl, older siblings can begin to experience “consequences” such as toy-grabbing and tower-smashing.

Claire Lerner, also writing for Parents, in an article titled, “When Toddlers Won’t Share With Siblings,” notes that “As hard as it may be for young children to negotiate these kinds of challenges, having siblings teaches them some of life's most important lessons: how to share [their] parents, [their] space (particularly if they're sleeping in the same bedroom), and treasured objects. Rather than dreading these moments of conflict between your children, consider them rich opportunities to help the kids learn critical skills -- in this case, conflict resolution.”

The Super Nanny UK website suggests that most squabbles are driven by four underlying feelings: boredom, (reaction to) parental attention, issues (such as perceived injustice), and/or accumulated resentment. The site offers tips on helpful and unhelpful parental response strategies to each situation.

Working through these feelings and discovering the reality of competing agendas and often limited resources, helps kids learn turn-taking, conflict resolution, and how to deal with not getting their way. It can also help them to be gracious losers and even more gracious winners, and can also teach them that life isn’t always fair according to their personal definition of fairness—all hugely important life lessons.

An article titled, “11 Ways to Teach Your Child to Share,”on the Ask Dr. Sears website offers excellent advice and observations, noting that “mine” is one of the first words “to come out of a toddler’s mouth.” It says that “true sharing implies empathy,” something most kids under age of six are incapable of. Prior to that it requires parental “conditioning.” Happily, the article proclaims that “given guidance and generosity, the selfish two-year-old can become a generous three or four-year-old.”

In a heartbeat, siblings can swing from bitter adversaries to best buds. Two stories from the Start to Read! series touch on near-opposite aspects of sibling relationships. One is Benny’s Baby Brother, available as iOS eBook or Kindle eBook, about an older brother who changes his mind about a new addition to the family. Another story, The Big Race, is about identical twins Mace and Jace, who team up to outsmart a neighborhood bully, showing how sibs can be not just friends but powerful allies.

Try turning sullen sibs into more playful competitors. The “11 Ways” article includes a sub-section titled “Teaching Life Principles Through Play,” suggesting that “games hold a child’s attention, allowing lessons to sink in, in the spirit of fun.” Games, it also notes, build character traits that include: “humor, fairness, honesty, generosity, concentration, flexibility, obedience to rules, sensitivity, and the all-American value of competitiveness.”

So consider giving squabbling sibs a game that allows either solo or paired play as it builds important skills and encourages healthy competition. For example, Math War Game Card sets in either addition/subtraction or multiplication versions sharpen foundational skills. Or for mobile devices there’s Memory Match, a great, play-anywhere game app, available as iOS or Android app, which helps challenge and enhance memory, focus, vocabulary, and listening skills. Kids can compete with a friend in two-player mode or play against a built-in opponent.

With some strategic intervention, rifts between brothers and sisters can become important building blocks.