Putting an End to Sibling Rivalry

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Alvin Price, Child Development teacher at BYU-Idaho South (that school in Provo) was fond of saying, “If you want to raise street-smart kids, don’t interfere when your kids fight with each other.”

That was troubling advice for a student with two active little boys who were best of friends, except when they were at each other’s throats. It was hard to watch them fight, and especially difficult when the older seemed to use his size and experience to outmaneuver his younger brother in getting what he wanted. And I was a lot less interested in developing “street smarts” than I was in raising nice boys.

Like many parents I stepped in to correct my older son, thinking myself wise for trying to even out the playing field, as it were. It took a few years for me to realize that once a parent steps into the field is anything but even. Like a chubby kid on a teeter-totter, once a parent picks a side it is impossible to really balance things out.

The costs of sibling rivalry cannot be overstated. While the phrase tends to conjure up images of kids glaring at each other across the card table or competing for supremacy in sports or school, it often becomes much more. Such conflict can easily endure into adulthood, and many of us know adults still feuding with brothers or sisters—even silently—well into their sixties and beyond.

It has been stated that sibling rivalry is, at its core, competition for the approval and affection of parents. It seems to imply that there is not enough of either to go around, that one has to fall from grace or fail in order for the other to succeed. Patterns established early in life can continue even after those parents are gone. What a shame it would be to go through life, even part of it, without the full love and support of those who might understand us best, having shared growing up years.

No parent would intentionally create such a situation, and yet it happens routinely when parents step in and pronounce one child superior, or smarter, or even needing and worthy of protection. Children are excellent observers, but don’t always perceive parental intentions accurately. What we meant to accomplish and what they perceived are often two very different things.

As I began to wise up I took Alvin Price’s advice, and stepped back to let our kids work out their problems rather than stepping in to pick a winner and a loser, a good guy and a bad guy. At first it was difficult to bear, hearing or watching them feuding. Ruth, my wife, helped to rein me in when I wanted to interfere, knowing that they also needed to learn to solve problems together now in order to develop the skills and temperaments that would help them later in life with friends, mission companions, college roommates, and spouses.

If the kids were fighting over the television remote or video game console and it got out of hand (hitting, threatening or name calling), one of us calmly stepped in and let them know that they would need to work it out or it would be shut off. If the conflict continued the television was shut off until they had arrived at a solution, and both let us know they were ready to resume.

The few times that one or more came to us, complaining that they had been hurt or mistreated by the other we talked with them about what happened, empathized without agreeing that the other was a jerk, and then asked how they thought the problem could be resolved. With only a few exceptions, our kids were able to come up with their own solutions, which gave us opportunities to congratulate and encourage them.

Our older sons are still quite competitive: they married eight months apart, had their daughters two months apart, their sons six days apart, and now that they’ve each had a second daughter our oldest is planning another child.

But we know all five of our children love and support one another, and root for the others’ success. And as we grow older, that becomes more and more important to us.

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About the Author:

Michael Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 25 years' experience. A specialist in quickly improving important relationships, he is also an expert in helping clients to quickly overcome problems with anxious, depressed or irritable moods.

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