Why siblings clash
If your kindergartner is the baby of the family, he knows by now that his older sibling has some of the independence and privileges he wants for himself, while your firstborn is discovering that she does not want her little brother tagging along wherever she goes. The result: arguing, name-calling, teasing, tattling, pushing, and hitting that will occupy your kids for hours on end and ultimately threaten your sanity.
The truth is, some brothers and sisters bicker their whole lives, so accept the fact that a certain level of background noise is unavoidable. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to teach your children the importance of treating each other respectfully and resolving their own conflicts. Refereeing sibling rivalry isn’t for the faint of heart. But with some careful navigation and lots of understanding, you can minimize the headaches and make life at home more harmonious.
What you can do about sibling rivalry
Try not to foster competition. Resist the temptation to compare your children. The classic “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” is bound to hurt feelings. Instead, emphasize each child’s unique strengths: “Josh, I’m so proud of you for reading that whole book by yourself! And Jenny, I’m so blessed to have a little girl who can dance so well.” Praise and reward them together whenever possible, too: “Wow! Everyone remembered to brush their teeth tonight!”
Don’t strive for equality. Yes, you read that right. When parents, with the best of intentions, try to treat their children equally, they create more problems than they solve. Instead, treat your children as individuals. The time will come — if it hasn’t already — when one child will get to take a gymnastics class that the other is too young for. And most kindergartners still need to have stories read to them, while older children may be able to read themselves.
Instead of pursuing equality, tell your kids that you’ll do your best to be fair — and that’s the best you can do. When one wails, “Cindy has more cherries than me,” try saying, “Would you like another cherry? How many more do you think you’ll eat?” When it comes to portions, let one child cut the cake while the other gets to choose the first piece. The child who’s cutting will strive to make the portions identical, and both children may even enjoy the novelty of the experience.
Discourage tattling. When your kindergartner runs to tell you that his little sister is jerking books off the coffee table or his older brother isn’t doing his homework, tell him that you’re not interested in hearing from him what his sibling is doing. If he wants to tell you what he’s doing, on the other hand, you’re all ears. Make it clear that you won’t stand for your children trying to get each other into trouble. But be sure they understand the one important exception to this rule: If anybody is in danger of getting hurt or is hurting someone, then you need to hear about it right away.
Arbitrate and set limits when necessary. In general, avoid getting involved in your children’s arguments. Ignore small squabbles and encourage your kids to work out problems themselves. If emotions are escalating and you see fury or tears on the horizon, though, they probably need your help, if only to facilitate communication.
Set the scene by describing their anger toward each other: “Peter, you seem hurt because Marcia wouldn’t let you join her tree-house club. Is that right?” Listen to all sides of the debate, allowing no one to interrupt the person saying his piece. Then sum up the problem, acknowledge its difficulty, and have the kids propose solutions. You might even want to leave them alone, expressing your confidence in their ability to work it out. If that doesn’t work or if the kids are too upset to iron things out themselves, give them a half-hour cooling-off period and try again.
Of course, there are times when one child will clearly be at fault. If it’s your kindergartner, take him aside and lay down guidelines for future scuffles. You might tell him, “Sometimes your big sister likes to spend time alone with her friends. When that happens, you can’t throw her CDs down the stairs. You have two choices: You can ask one of your friends over, or find something to play with on your own.”
Acknowledge feelings. Sometimes talking about a child’s feelings is all it takes to end a competitive bout. Start a dialogue by saying something such as “I know it hurts your feelings when your sister won’t let you go swimming with her.” Encourage your kindergartner to talk about his feelings. You might also want to tell him about a time when you felt the same way as a child — when your sister wouldn’t let you tag along (if that’s the case).
Set personal property boundaries. Don’t expect miracles, but you can avoid a lot of conflicts by designating a special place for your kids’ belongings — one shelf for each child, for instance. Tell them that before they can touch anything on a sibling’s shelf, they must ask permission. Help them make signs with each child’s name and Keep Out or By Permission Only. Even if he can’t read yet, your 5-year-old will get a big kick out of having his own shelf — and is more likely to respect his sibling’s personal space. If your kids are close in age, getting them identical toys whenever it’s feasible can prevent some potential conflicts.
Dole out rewards. When your kids have to spend a lot of time together — such as on a family car trip — try establishing a reward system. Divide the trip into stages, granting points for each hour of good behavior toward each other. The points can go for something they’ll both enjoy — milkshakes or a visit to an amusement park, for instance. You might be surprised at how well your kids cooperate when they have their eyes on the prize.
Divide and conquer. Siblings tend to go through periods in which they’re best friends and periods when they’re sworn enemies. When your family’s in battle mode, splitting up into child / parent pairs can ease the tension. One child gets a “Mommy day” and the other a “Daddy day.” If you’re a single parent, enlist a friend or relative to help you give each child some private time.