Growing in Social Awareness

Part 1 of 2 on Sibling Rivalry

By Nancy Lussier

Sibling rivalry can derail and frazzle the most calm and patient parent. We all want our children to love each other, watch out for and protect one another, plus play and be kind to each other. We dream about the oldest mentoring and modeling good behavior and always being there for the younger ones. Essentially, we want our children to love each other as we love them. So, when the fighting, yelling, accusing and turning a cold shoulder raises its ugly head, we choose to respond in a variety of ways. We strive for the best version of ourselves to intervene calmly, reasoning with each child to help him/her see the other child’s point of view. Waiting patiently until a truce or peace agreement has been arbitrated and signed. For many of us, there are those moments, when we find ourselves being sucked into childhood disagreements and screaming matches, reducing us to their level. We become “one of them” shouting, “Stop it”, but what should they be stopping? Since sibling rivalry has a functional purpose, which is to learn and practice social skills, we have a duty to prepare them for a wide range of real world interactions in the safety of our homes. As adults, we realize we can’t always get our way with colleagues, family members and friends. For this reason and more, it’s essential we provide natural opportunities for children to practice charity, generosity, the art of negotiating, as well as critical thinking skills with siblings who really love them unconditionally.

Years ago, our children would have the wildest hair pulling fights. Actually, only one of our daughters was the hair puller, our other three just used their hands and feet. I would rush in and act like a prize fight referee sending them off to their individual corners to prevent additional physical harm. I felt like a horrible parent, and since my husband traveled a lot during these years, I thought it was all my fault. I broke down one day and told my tale of woe to a wise older man who burst out laughing. He assured me I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but our children were learning how to be social beings.

Our friend’s remark made me stop and think about how my husband and I should be viewing and using sibling rivalry as opportunities to truly turn our children into social human beings. I still had to run in and intervene in the rough and tumble fights, which thank goodness decreased as they got older, but I began to wait and give them time and space to work out and resolve their differences. My husband and I first discussed why this goal was so vital to the development of our children and what we hoped the payoff would be. Next, we identified the triggers that appeared to provoke the rough and tumble skirmishes between the four children. We came up with two main triggers and determined to redirect the “instigator’s” energy and motivation to more productive endeavors. Our children attended a Montessori School and I always remembered the term “neutral moments”. Neutral moments are periods of time when a child’s or adult’s emotions are level, without the range of highs and lows. During neutral moments, an individual is more receptive to listening to suggestions and receiving constructive feedback. Mark and I intentionally looked for the right time to execute phase one by talking privately with our oldest daughter who was 9 and what we saw as her role in provoking a good percentage of the fights. We solicited her feedback and point of view. She readily admitted she liked to get the younger three stirred up to see what happened next, as she said this with a smile on her face. It’s funny what motivates our behavior because quite often it was her hair that got pulled out!

Around this time, we heard the author and speaker James Stenson talk about the importance of raising virtuous children. He challenged us with one question, “What kind of an adult do you want your children to become?” This one question on the importance of tailoring character formation around each child’s unique age, temperament, personality wasn’t new to us, but hearing it said again at a moment we needed to hear it was profound. We went home and started to individualize our approach in concrete ways to use all moments in our home as opportunities for growth and maturity in character formation. It didn’t happen overnight, but we were on our way.

Mark and I first looked at ourselves and our “go to” responses to various situations before tackling our children’s mode of responding. We both have strengths in dealing with situations and our styles were complementary. One challenge was - how can he, when away, support and back-up my decisions? Our next phase was to closely examine our family’s routines and schedules: husband's various schedules, children’s schedules, chores, sports and recreation. After two weeks of jotting down pertinent data: instigator?, verbal or physical fight?, triggers?, time of day?, wait time before intervening?, etc., we were able to see the bigger picture unfold and select strategies to help our family grow into caring citizens. We also vowed to work harder on keeping “our cool”.

Since family members aren’t robots programmed to perform specific functions in predetermined ways, family life is then unpredictable, children’s interactions are unpredictable, but parents should never be unpredictable in sticking to their plan for developing character formation. Instead, have a “toolbox” of various techniques and strategies, which adjust and flex depending on the severity and type of bickering, teasing or fighting. Remember, the goal isn’t to solve all our children’s problems dealing with siblings, but to assist each child to desire what is best for his/her brothers and sisters out of justice. What’s best might be to forgive for hurt feelings, or be generous and let the other sibling go first in a game of cards. These acts, sometimes small, benefit both the doer and the receiver. Sometimes all it takes is to remind the older child what it was like when he/she was a toddler or preschooler. Showing pictures to a ten year old who has forgotten what it was like to be three, helps reset his/her perspective and independently shift gears, the next time a perceived injustice occurs. “Giving in” to an older or younger sibling isn’t a sign of weakness, or life being unfair, but a sign of maturity in obedience, love and respect for each family member. especially those who are younger.