The bane of many parents’ existence is the rivalry that exists among their children when they are young and when they are adults. There seems no end to it. Children count the number of potato chips on every plate, and adults keep track of the value of gifts their siblings receive. Being evenhanded and fair with a pack of kids takes more energy and patience than most of us have, and we hope they will grow out of their competition. Understanding the root of rivalry—which is a small child’s belief that there isn’t enough food, or sweets, or love to go around—may make it easier to think through the situations as they come up. Here are some tips for downplaying sibling rivalry.
1. If you didn’t see it happen, you can’t decide who did it. Staying out of your kids’ fights is a powerful tool in helping them resolve their conflicts on their own, even though things may get out of hand regularly. Encourage them to settle disputes among themselves, and intercede only to avoid physical harm. Stay neutral whenever possible. Always telling the older child, for instance, to give in to the baby isn’t fair, and they both know it. It’s better to make them both sit in a big old chair until they’ve made up. It may take more patience to do this than to side with one of the kids, so don’t blame yourself when you lose it. Kids know your limits and they can’t expect more from you.
2. Steer clear of favorites. Every child wants to be the favorite, and if there is a favorite, all the others are jealous of him or her. They feel that they’ll never get enough of your time and attention, and they often blame the favorite for the rest of their lives. It’s natural for a mom or a dad to feel a greater kinship with one of the kids. He or she may look like you, or resemble somebody you love. Or you may share temperaments or ways of thinking. That’s natural, but there are plenty of ways you can make the others feel special. Also, beware the favoritism of relatives. That can make the competition more serious. Explaining to an aunt that the un-favorite is feeling bad can usually do the trick.
3. Be flexible about how you characterize your kids. If one child is “the smart one,” and another “the pretty one,” or somebody is the bad child and another the perfect child, kids feel pushed to fit that role, and that makes for mutual hostility. Since the pretty one may be smarter than you think, and the quiet one may grow a good social intelligence, let those stereotypes float away. The kids who get along best in their families are the ones who don’t feel boxed in.
4. Encourage your kids’ differences, and don’t compare them. This helps to downplay rivalry. If they all want to play musical instruments, help them to choose different ones, and the same goes for sports. Of course if you have two tennis stars, that’s great (how could we live without the Williams sisters?), but you can praise their strengths in different areas, too. Spending alone time regularly with each of the kids will go a long way to helping them deal with their competition over your time and attention.
5. Whenever you can, level the playing field. Give your clumsy girl dancing lessons and the one with unruly hair a good haircut. Then you can focus on the strengths that make each child different.
At the end of a long day, it’s almost impossible to keep these tips in mind, so try to actively deal with sibling rivalry only when you are fresh and have the energy. Children who feel that they are known and appreciated for themselves are less likely to be so competitive with others. Kids are very smart, and they know what you’re thinking most of the time. And since you love them all (most of the time), these tips may start coming naturally to you. The energy you spend now will repay you when they grow up. Seeing your grown kids like each other and get along is one of life’s joys.
Jane Isay is the author of “Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings.” You can find her online at janeisay.com.