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Mastering the Art of Better Listening

A New Look at Self Esteem

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too

Loving Each One Best


by Susan Ginsberg Ed.D. 

How would you like your kids to feel toward one another? When a group of parents was asked this question recently, their answers were loving, protective, respectful, sharing, caring, tolerant, understanding, and supportive.


But when they were asked how they themselves had felt as children toward their siblings, their answers were negative as well as positive: jealous, competitive, and resentful, but at the same time loving and admiring.



Why are we so anxious to have our kids get along? As children, many of us longed for a close sibling relationship, or if we were an only child we fantasized about having a brother or sister to play with.


Those of us with siblings were told by our parents that we should love each other and not fight. And most of us remember from our own childhood how hurtful a sibling's anger or negative remark could be and how it stayed with us for years.


The reality, of course, is that feelings of love/hate, cooperation/competition, and protectiveness/rejection are part of the normal interaction between siblings. As a parent, you shouldnĦt feel that you are doing a bad job because you canĦt trust your 3-year-old alone in a room with your new baby or your older kids seem to be endlessly squabbling. But itĦs helpful to understand that sibling rivalry is not all negative and to learn some ways to handle it.



Young children tend to think about love as a limited commodity: that is, parents have only so much of it and if you have to share it with more people, youĦll get less. Older kids often compete for parentsĦ time and attention when they fight. The issue of fairness looms large and stays with us even when weĦre grown up. My adult daughter still reminds me how unfair it was that her younger sister was allowed to wear stockings three years earlier than she was.



Yes, there is a positive side to sibling rivalry. Drs. Julius and Zelda Segal, both psychologists, sum it up neatly. Through their adversarial roles, children learn a great deal about handling human relationships-how to stand up for their own rights, how to compete without acting hostile and aggressive, how to resolve conflicts through negotiation and compromise, and how to lose gracefully.” Siblings also learn valuable lessons about reliance in human relationships," says Cathy Rindner Tempelsman, author of Child-Wise,"that we can feel terribly angry at people and then feel loving towards them again with no loss of intimacy.”



When a new baby comes home, parents are often asked how the older child is reacting. We usually respond, Oh, he loves his baby sister. ItĦs not so simple. A sibling may feel loving and protective and then will tell you to take the baby back. Don't deny or dismiss this childs feelings or signs that he or she is upset. As Tempelsman says: The more attuned you are to your older child's ambivalence, the easier it will be for that child to accept the new baby. Here are some other ideas for ways to help young children.


š       Encourage older siblings to put their feelings into words. Books on sibling rivalry, available for children of all ages, are good conversation starters.

š       Talk about the advantages of being the older child and how much he or she can do such as playing games, sleeping over at Grandma's house, and so forth.

š       Ask your older child first before you give any outgrown blankets or toys to the baby. They may mean more to the child than you might think.

š       Keep in mind that it takes time for a young child to grasp the meaning of having a sibling. Author Anna Quindlen eloquently described her older sonĦs slow realization: I think it began one day when the younger one needed me more and I turned to him and said: "You know, Quin, I'm Christopher's mommy, too". The look that passed over his face was the one I imagine usually accompanies the discovery of a dead body in the den: shock, denial, horror. "And Daddy is Christopher's daddy," he gasped. When I confirmed this he began to cry--wet, sad, sobbing.”



The fact is, sibling rivalry canĦt be wished or talked or reasoned away, but here are some suggestions for keeping it within bounds.


š       The younger kids are, the more you will find yourself soothing or separating them. As they get older, try to stay out of squabbles. Encourage them to come up with their own solutions. Ellen Galinsky, co-author of The Preschool Years, suggests saying,I'm more interested in how you solve this problem together than who started it.”

š       If you do intervene, do so calmly and neutrally without assuming that one child is the Àbully” and the other is the Àvictim.” ItĦs futile to try to get to the bottom of every fight, but watch for patterns of fighting so you can avoid them in the future.

š       Set some basic rules and stick with them. Hurting each other is never okay. Vicki Lansky, author of Practical Parenting Tips for the First Five Years, suggests that no Àput-downs” should be allowed. ÀYou make me mad” is okay but "YouĦre a stupid baby" is not.

š       Fair may not mean the same” and each child has different needs. Nancy Samalin, author of Loving Each One Best, says, Cries of itĦs not fair aren't about portions or turns but about resenting having to share your attention and affection. Treat each child as being unique rather than equal.”


(adapted from Work & Family Life newsletter, edited by Susan Ginsberg)



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