School Starters Out into the World : Brothers and Sisters Sibling rivalry (part 1) - Favoritism A misguided approach

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Q: My four-year-old wants to be with her older sister all the time, and follows her around like a puppy.
A: First of all, it is important to empathize with your older child and acknowledge how annoying it is to have her little sister wanting to spend every waking (and some sleeping) moments with her. At the same time, you will need to make it clear that any mean behavior or cruelty from your older child is not acceptable. Sharing a similar experience from your own childhood can help her to see the situation from both sides. Being the older sibling can be a heavy burden if you expect her to “know better,” so it is best to avoid this approach. Also best avoided is expecting her to care for her little sister for you.

Have some simple rules that protect private space and possessions, and help your younger child to abide by these. Make sure that there are opportunities for both of your daughters to have play dates with other children, perhaps one at home and one at a friend’s house, to ensure further separateness. There may be some games that you can encourage the two girls to play together that capitalize on the age difference, such as school or family. Unless you really have to intervene, stay out of their interactions as much as possible.

Q: How can I be equally fair to both my children?
A: When it comes to material things, give according to your child’s need and interest and keep a mental tally to ensure you are giving equally. Make sure that you are even-handed when you give your children candy, but give each child the choice of when to eat them. Trying to be scrupulously fair can be unachievable. If you are trying to give your children exactly the same, you are likely to come unstuck at some point. Some would say that you are not preparing them for life, which is frequently unfair. So perhaps learning the value of equality may be a useful lesson. Give your time to each child individually and equally, so that they do not have to fight with each other for it. And most importantly, give your love equally.

Even when you have achieved all this equality, someone will still complain that it’s not fair. Sometimes it seems that it isn’t the outcome that matters, rather the insistence on justice and the reaction it receives from you.

Q: What should I do about tattling?
A: You can find yourself caught in a dilemma with tattling between siblings: Obviously you do not want to encourage it, but there are times when you need to hear what has happened, especially if one of your children has been hurt. Most tale-telling is best played down and generally discouraged. Encourage your children to resolve the issue themselves, and remember to pay attention and give praise to any signs that they are resolving their conflict. Make it very clear that you are not interested in who did what to whom.

However, if one child is uncharacteristically letting you know about some serious misdemeanor of his brother’s or sister’s, you probably cannot ignore him. Rather than just stepping in and sorting out the situation yourself, it may be a good idea to think through with him about how he might in future resolve the situation without telling on his sibling.

Q: My children always fight about who is going in the front seat of the car. Is there anything I can do?
A: If airbag safety and carseat laws allow it, use this as an opportunity to get them to learn some problem-solving skills. First of all, address the issue at a time when they are both in a good mood and not when they are about to go on a car ride. Make it into a game or a story, so that they enjoy the process. You could tell a story about two other children who always fought over something.

First get them to name the problem: Two children, one front seat. Then get them to suggest possible solutions. Come up with some crazy solutions as well as realistic ones, so that you can laugh to lighten the mood. Allow fighting to be one of the possible solutions. Don’t come up with the answers yourself, but encourage them to use their imaginations, maybe prompting them from other experiences they have had of finding solutions. The next step is to think with them what the consequences of each of their solutions might be. Think about what might happen if they are hitting and fighting over the seat, as well as the consequences of their other possibilities, such as taking turns or flipping a coin. Finally, get them to decide which solution might have the most positive consequences and the least negative ones. Give the chosen solution a try and consider with them whether they have made a good choice.

Q: My children are always squabbling. I’ve run out of ideas for keeping peace. Any tips?
A: When your children are old enough to be able to talk about problems and solutions, try having a weekly family meeting. Set aside a regular time and get the whole family together. Encourage everyone to contribute to setting the agenda and to thinking positively about resolving the difficulties. Have a couple of simple rules, such as only one person can talk at a time, and everyone must stay calm and speak kindly about each other. You might want to have a “talking stick” that gets passed from one family member to the next, and only the person holding the stick can talk. Discourage blaming and “bad mouthing” each other, and encourage problem-solving and constructive solutions. You can address all sorts of issues, from household chores and family treats to sibling squabbles. Taking turns is also a powerful rule to follow. It is worth keeping your own tally for whose turn it is next, as this can become a battle in itself. Taking turns to choose allows some flexibility and the possibility of a pact being made between siblings. Time alone with a parent is another valuable commodity often battled over. If you make sure each child gets time alone with you as well as time to play with his own friends without the other being present, this may ease the pressure on the time they spend together. Time, all on their own, is also worth establishing and protecting. Being fair is what it is all about, but this does not mean things have to be absolutely equal—your children are not identical. Give each child time and opportunity to do things that they like and are good at.

Favoritism A misguided approach

I was not aware of it, but I was favoring my youngest daughter because she is so different from me. My eldest, Sally, reminds me so much of myself, a good girl, who always does what she is told and never shows any defiance. In my experience this has not always been a successful approach to life and I guess I wanted her to be a bit more feisty, like her younger sister.

It did not take long for me to realize what I was doing and to see how misguided I was being. Sally began to resent her little sister and was probably taking out her anger at me on her sibling. I can see that I was in danger of setting up a flaw in their relationship that could have lasted them into adulthood, and all I really want is for them to be good sisters to each other and happy in their lives.

To resolve this, I’ve tried to give Sally extra-special praise for her compliant nature and treat defiance more firmly.

Respect: do unto others…

What is respect and how do you teach it to a young child? It’s a difficult concept but easy to demonstrate. If you treat your children with respect, they will be more likely to treat each other in the same way. A child who is criticized and belittled by his parents will taunt and sneer at his brothers and sisters. The way in which you talk to and talk about your own family and your partner will influence the way your child deals with his. Simply saying “please” and “thank you,” being patient and kind, showing consideration for others’ feelings and tolerance for their shortcomings—this will all set the tone for day-to-day interactions in your home.

Reminding an older sibling about what she was like at the age her younger sibling is now is a helpful way to get her to put herself in someone else’s shoes. Getting her to think about how she would like to be treated in that situation may soften her approach.

Property rights are an important lesson to teach early on. Sibling conflict often emanates from squabbles over ownership of toys. Learning to share is challenging and will be helped by feeling secure in the ownership of an object. Teach your child to respect other people’s property and to ask permission before using it.

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