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How Do You Handle Sibling Rivalry?

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Sibling-rivalryImage source: CNN

Would you ever encourage one of your children to hit another, as a form of behavior modification?

Over the long holiday weekend, one of the stops my family made was a local playground. This particular one is set up in such a way that there’s plenty of seating for parents right near the action. I’ve noticed that this layout tends to encourage parents to take a seat, dig out their phones, and kind of checkout, creating an environment with a little less supervision than some might like (ahem, me).

While A was busy mastering the rock climbing wall, I watched two brother, about 4 and 7 years old, who were playing a game of swords that started to get a little too aggressive. Eventually, little brother made the mistake of flat out whacking big brother, who ran off to report the incident to dad.

Dad’s exact response was:

You know, you can hit him back if he does that. That’ll make him stop real fast.

As soon as I heard these words, I, too, pulled out my phone to quickly type them up, just knowing they were the basis of a post I couldn’t resist writing. (Thanks for the content, dude!)

Wow! A parent openly advocating an eye for an eye. He didn’t encourage his boys to stop fighting, which may have been what big brother was hoping for; he encouraged them to make things even.

You probably know that this isn’t the way I would have approached the situation; I think it sends a strange message about wrongdoing to young kids. But it got me thinking about how differently we may all handle sibling rivalry within our families.

We’ve been confronting the first signs of rivalry between A and Baby J recently. Sure, A was a little bent out of shape when the baby arrived, and she vied for our attention by acting out, but I never saw her take her anger out on the baby.

Now, the “baby” is getting to be more of an active, opinionated toddler, so we’re seeing the girls steal each other’s toys, sippy cups, and even seats on mom and dad’s laps.

Sculpture-GardenDon’t let A see you having fun with Baby J because it’ll be all over.

The other day, I even saw Baby J get so frustrated with her big sister that she began to hit her. I responded in the same way I did when A was that age: I held the hand-turned-weapon, told Baby J that we don’t hit each other, and showed her how to touch A gently, gently.

I also had to explain to A that she did the same thing when she was a baby—hitting me or her father out of frustration—and that we have to teach her sister not to express her frustration by hitting people.

Thankfully, big sister is patient, and baby sister is learning fast. But would some people advocate hitting Baby J back, to teach her a different type of lesson?

Maybe not, because she’s just too young at 13 months old. Is it an age thing?

Or maybe it’s a gender thing? Would you allow two sons to work things out physically but not two daughters? Do fathers and mothers handle these situations differently (what would the mother of those two boys at the playground have said about the hitting?)

Does the way you handle sibling rivalry reflect your world view: that things can always be worked out peacefully, or that some circumstances necessitate force?

I’m so curious, what you do in your household?

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10 comments… add one
  • Megan May 27, 2014, 11:41 am

    I plan to take a pretty hands off approach. Mine aren’t at the point of real rivarly, so my stance could change, but my philosophy is that sibling and early childhood relationships are the best way for kids to learn to work out their problems before things become real: “Little kids, little problems: Big kids, big problems.” As a mental health professional working with children in schools, I see way too many kids who have never had the opportunity to learn to socially problem solve because of being rescued and refereed through their early childhood. I also believe that parents intervening in kids’ conflicts gives them a secondary gain: our attention, which can be inadvertently reinforcing to maintain the conflicts. So my motto: “Work it out” Caveat: When one child is clearly bullying or victimizing another, I would intervene.

    • Evanthia Evanthia May 27, 2014, 2:31 pm

      I’m so glad you offered your personal and professional perspectives, Megan! You raise a lot of great points about learning to handle conflict and how all this acting out can really be a ploy for our attention.

      I know all siblings have their squabbles. I remember vividly getting into it with my brother. I was probably in middle school so he would have been in one of the upper grades of elementary school. We would get so frustrated and beat up on each other until our mom would get us to quit it and cool off. I’m not sure we’re any worse off for these physical fights, but I’d like to avoid them with my kids.

      I really do wonder how gender will play into the sibling rivalry in my house, too, having two girls. I don’t have a sister, so I can’t really imagine how young girls might argue, physically or psychologically.

  • Leah May 27, 2014, 2:41 pm

    My brother and I are 16 months apart, and we had a definite rivalry going on when we were young. It was basically a war. Eventually my mom just let us go and said, “If you don’t want to be hit, don’t hit.” We eventually worked it out when we realized that it didn’t matter who started it, if we were both participating, we’d both be punished.

    My son is 4-1/2 and my daughter just turned two, so we’re at an age where the youngest is starting to do things to bug or provoke her brother. And about a month ago, I witnessed them fighting over a toy. I let it go for a bit to see if they could work it out on their own, when my daughter grabbed her arm and turned to me, crying, “Miles hit me!” I’d been watching the whole time and he hadn’t touched her. So we’ve got some attempted manipulation going on, too. I hope we can avoid all-out war as they grow up so that I don’t have to decide how we would handle that. :)

    • Evanthia Evanthia May 28, 2014, 3:29 pm

      I’m interested to hear that you had that much tension with your brother when you are so close in age. My brother and I are 4.5 years apart, and I’ve always wondered if that age difference had something to do with our fighting. I guess not!

      You’re so right about kids using their disagreements to manipulate us. I’ve seen this come up during playdates with friends, when one of the kids will kind of “stretch the truth” in recounting their version of events. I always feel awkward providing an accurate portrayal of things in those cases and discrediting someone’s kid–basically calling him/her a liar. Eek!

  • Russ (The Stay At Homer) May 27, 2014, 2:45 pm

    I usually let them try and work it out on their own. Sometimes it works itself out, but if it gets physical, though, I break them up and make them talk about it. That usually involves a ton of blaming and screaming. But I try and hear them both out. Then, after validating both feelings, I make suggestions on how they can handle themselves better the next time. I include statements like “you are never allowed to hit your brother. If he is doing something you don’t like, you can tell him how you feel or walk away.” Sometimes I impose a hug, which I turn into a silly thing that makes them laugh and the situation oftentimes diffuses.

    • Evanthia Evanthia May 28, 2014, 3:31 pm

      I think that’s a great rule of thumb, Russ: let them work it out if/until it becomes physical. I think I may steal your silly hug idea–maybe even throw in some tickling to try to lighten the mood :)

  • Deni May 29, 2014, 1:53 pm

    I have two younger sisters – we are each about two years about. . .Don’t even get me started on the middle-school arguments over clothes and the telephone! Ha.

    The entire time I was reading this I kept hearing my own Mother’s voice: “You know two wrongs don’t make a right.”

    Oh how I used to roll my eyes at that one! But I think she was correct.

    My own son’s are 2.5 years apart. There’s little doubt I’m going to find myself playing referee frequently. Still, I don’t plan to encourage them to act in a retaliatory fashion towards anyone. Ever. If I witness this sort of behavior, I’m hoping to redirect them in a way that will help them compromise or focus on “fixing” any of their poor choices. . .

    I’ll keep you posted on how that works out. :)

    • Evanthia Evanthia June 2, 2014, 3:53 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Deni! I was just so surprised to hear that dad encouraging his older son to retaliate. What an odd message to be sending your kids! And then, logically, you’d expect they’d take the same approach with other kids on the playground, right? You hit me, I’ll hit you back.

      I’ve been dying to pick the brain of someone who had a sister! Did you two have physical fights, or were they mostly psychological??

  • Jennifer May 29, 2014, 3:36 pm

    While my worldview is that some things can only be solved by force in foreign policy, I don’t subscribe to that in interpersonal relationships! My guess is it’s laziness that makes parents say “work it out” by letting the kids hit each other! It’s hard to have to stop whatever else you’re doing so many times a day to remind the kids how they are supposed to be treating each other. Luke is only 1 but I bet he could teach Andrew a lesson if I took a totally hands-off approach! I think the real problem with the approach you witnessed is that while one kid could learn a beneficial lesson “If this is how I treat others, they could decide to treat me the same way” the real problem is that the other sibling is learning the opposite lesson “It’s ok to hurt people when they hurt me”!

    • Evanthia Evanthia June 2, 2014, 3:58 pm

      You’re right, Jennifer. This dad was deeply engrossed in whatever he was doing on his phone. He barely lifted his eyes from it to encourage the retaliation!! And as I mentioned in a previous comment, his son was learning a lesson about an eye for an eye with his brother, but I wonder if he would also apply that same lesson to other kids on the playground.

      If we all taught our kids this lesson, it would be all Lord of the Flies in no time!

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