One of the best analogies I have ever heard to help parents understand sibling rivalry I read in a wonderful book, Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, published in 1987. At the risk of aging myself, I still recommend you go to your nearest library or bookstore (yes, both still exist) and see if you can find a copy of this wonderful resource for parents (this book is also available in electronic version, a testament to the timeless advice).
In the second chapter of their book, Faber and Mazlish lead the reader through a scenario broken down into smaller pieces to help you feel and see through a child’s eyes the “wonderful experience” of becoming a sibling. To paraphrase, and slightly embellish, the analogy presented is asking you to imagine how you would feel if your spouse came home all excited, sharing with you the fantastic news that since you are so wonderful, another spouse is going to join the two of you! Of course, the new spouse is younger and cuter, and gets all the attention of everyone who has been adoring you as the “one and only” for years. To show you are still important, you get a new t-shirt declaring “I am the older spouse”, and get to pick out a new gift – oh, not for you, the gift is to welcome your new best friend. No doubt, you will understand how you must be patient, and be quiet around the house, and get less attention, and share your things. So many people will come to visit and “oooo” and “ahhh” over the newest family member, but don’t worry, they will be sure to ask you if you’re excited, too. Who wouldn’t be?
Yes, the analogy is funny, but real if you are the older child welcoming a new baby into the house. As adults, we would never tolerate the situation described above, yet, we ask our children to do so with no complaints. In fact, we are baffled and even angry when we don’t see our own enthusiasm with the new baby mirrored in our older child. Still wondering why sibling rivalry exists?
OK, I’m not advocating a single child policy. The issue of if and how many children to have is a very personal decision. What I do advocate is for parents (and other well-intentioned adults) to remember that a new baby may not be the fantastic news for a child that we expect. An older sibling is still a child, and more than ever needs love and attention and reassurance when a new baby is born. As children grow up together, parents need to continually look for the unique qualities in each child, the unique gifts and talents each child possesses. One size fits all, or treating each child exactly the same does not work in the long term if we are to help each child grow to reach fullest potential. As the parent, you are the person responsible to nurture and to care for each child, setting an example is your responsibility, not the responsibility of the older sibling. The quickest way to inflame sibling rivalry is to hold an older child accountable for the well-being of their younger sibling. True, older children can be a big help with younger siblings, but the responsibility lies with the parent. Remember to give each child special time with you “sibling free”, as well as alone time to pursue interests and friendships outside the sib group.
In all your interactions with your children, strive for purposeful parenting. When dealing with conflicts between children, work on developing conflict resolution skills. Be conscious that what works for one child may not work for another. Fair and equal are not the same word, or actions, and your interactions with each of your children may be different. Avoid comparisons. Think in terms of “I love you each uniquely”, when accused of loving one child more (yes, even from the most lovable cherub this accusatory phrase will almost inevitably sprout). Don’t expect your children to fulfill your dreams, they will have their own. Don’t expect each child to be just like their older or younger sibling – different is ok, and some children will test you more than others. Most importantly, model love and respect for each child and with others, for your values are the essence of parenting that will stay with your children throughout their lives, the roots and wings that will nurture siblings into adulthood and, who knows, maybe even best friends after all!