The Good News About Sibling Conflicts and Cures

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Sibling Conflicts and Cures

What causes sibling rivalry? Many times it’s a sense of having to compete for significance and attention within the family structure. For example, if one child is clearly Mom’s ‘favorite’, there will probably be some good healthy sibling rivalry from the other children in the home, and understandably so. Children need to know that they matter, are accepted and loved just as they are, and that no one child is preferred over another.

One way to ensure your child is getting enough one-on-one attention is for a parent to have a weekly date with each child, on a rotating schedule. For example, this Wednesday night Dad might do something special with one child, next Wednesday another child, and so on.

Fortunately, kids are usually pretty cheap dates. You don’t need to take her to an expensive spa to get her nails done or buy him box seats to watch his favorite team’s hockey game. What they really want is to spend time with you.

Spend Quality Time With Each Child

Throw a ball, play with dolls, paint her nails or color together with your child. Take junior out for an ice cream cone or a bike ride. This is the stuff that childhood is made of, and you will remember these times with fondness as your children grow older. Your children may become too busy to do these things with you later in life.

When our children were younger, ‘Gabe the babe’ was bigger than the other two. Having been born weighing ten pounds and three ounces at birth, by the time he was crawling he could easily pin his big sister AND his big brother to the floor with hardly any effort.

Why Parents Should Spend More Time With Their Children

Sibling Rivalry Can Leave Funny Memories

I remember one humorous moment when I heard Abby, then just two years old, scream. I ran into the living room and saw little Gabe, about eleven months old, grinning with delight while sitting on her like a cowboy on a horse. Poor little Abby was stuck fast and couldn’t move no matter how hard she tried!

Although we often laugh about sibling conflict later on, at the time it’s not so funny for anybody involved. Oftentimes as parents we wonder if our children are going to end up as homicidal maniacs, or if one or all of them will someday need serious counseling for the troubles they passed through during childhood.

This chapter is here to offer you, the parent, some consolation about what sibling rivalry is, what is normal versus abnormal behavior, and how you can effectively deal with it.

Turmoil in “Sally’s” Family

We have a friend I’ll call Sally. Sally is a very responsible young 18-year-old adult who has two very rambunctious younger brothers, currently twelve and fourteen years old. Sally received a very special invitation to travel abroad for three months but was hesitant to do so because her unofficial ‘job’ in the family for years has been to act as the referee between her two brothers.

We know the family fairly well, and at first, we couldn’t believe that the boys fight like wild animals at home, because at church and at our home they are absolute little angels, adorable and smiling.  However, Sally assured us that they do, indeed, terrorize each other on a daily basis.

Sally’s parents are extremely busy working to support their family, thus the responsibility fell to her to referee her brothers’ squabbles. She was obviously torn between staying home as a referee and taking advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad, so we gave her some very basic, simple advice.

Natural Consequences

“Don’t intervene in their fights anymore,” we suggested. She looked at us, astonished, pretty sure that we had lost our senses for a moment.  “Don’t you understand?”, she urged us. “They’ll KILL each other if I don’t stop their fighting!”

As our conversation continued, it became clear that they were not actually likely to kill each other. Instead, it seemed as if they were rather bored at home, and that to them, this was a fun ‘game’ that involved the whole family and gave everybody a job to do.  Sally, obviously, was the referee. Her mother was the soft-hearted one who came home and hugged her poor little fighting kids.

We urged her to stop intervening, explaining that the boys were playing off the fact that she would always be there to referee. She tried our suggestion, and was amazed at how well it worked!

Charging for Referee Services

In our own family, we have a fun way of dealing with sibling conflict. The kids get along very well now, but especially when they were younger, if we heard a problem escalating we would wait until someone came looking for help. “MOM…”, would come the inevitable whine. “He HIT me!” or “He’s not sharing the cookies!” or “She won’t let me use her markers!”

When they were really young, we would intervene and use the situation as a teaching moment for everyone, bringing in an appropriate Bible verse and having them sit together until they were friends again. Thankfully, children are naturally forgiving and want to get back to playing as quickly as possible, so this usually took only seconds. As they grew older, however, this became lots of fun for Tom and me.

When they came asking for help, and if we knew that they were completely capable of solving the situation without our involvement, I would enthusiastically answer, “Hey children, I’d be happy to help! My fee for refereeing is $5.00 per person per argument. When do we start?”

Teach Them to Solve Their Own Problems

At that point, the children would look at each other, pass a silent message between them, and both would shake their heads. “It’s okay, Mom…we can handle this one on our own.”

“Are you SURE?”, I would persist. “I’m a bit low on cash right now and would really love to make a quick buck by refereeing. Won’t you PLEEEEAAAASE let me?”

By this time they would be adamant. “No, Mom…we’re sure we can handle it.” They’d talk for a moment or two, hug and say, “See, Mom…we’ve handled it!” At that point, I get to go back to what I’m doing and they skip off happily, with the satisfaction of knowing they are little geniuses capable of solving their own problems.

Our Kids Are Best Friends

This technique has worked amazingly well for our family over the years, and the biggest blessing of all is that our children have always been, and continue to be, each other’s best friends. Few things make me happier as a parent than seeing my children work together, play together, stick together, cooperate together and stand up for each other.

At one point in our neighborhood, a bully started picking on Alex.  When our kids went out to play, he would say, “Alex can’t play, but Gabe and Abby can.” He held considerable influence among the neighborhood children, and many of the younger kids blindly went along with him. Gabe and Abby, however, stood firm, letting him know that his behavior was rude and unfair.

“First of all, YOU are not in charge of who plays. Secondly, if Alex doesn’t play, WE don’t play either!” they would announce, and all three would tromp back to the house to have a great time playing together. In the end, I did have to intervene in that situation, putting an end once-and-for-all to that playground injustice, but I was extremely proud of my children in how they handled the situation in the meantime.

Sharing a Chair

A technique that works well for smaller children who are arguing is to have them sit side by side together on a chair or small couch, not allowing them to get off the couch until they have settled their problem all by themselves.

Many years ago when we were teaching the College and Career class at our church, two young adults, one male and one female, came into the class. They were friendly to others but always sat together and seemed to thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. At first, I thought they were a couple, but soon found out that they were siblings!

Astonished, I asked how it happened that they got along so well together. They replied that when they were younger and would argue, their parents had put them on a chair together until they had solved their problems. In doing so, they became the best of friends, and still are to this day!

Sibling Rivalry and Identity

We first experienced sibling rivalry with our kids the very day Abigail, our second born child, came home from the hospital. Alex, who had us all to himself for two years, was visibly upset when we saw Abby nursing at my breast. He ran up and tried to pull her away, crying, “Baby Abigail all done kissing Mommy’s boo boo!”

As humorous as that was at the time, Alex really was upset at having to share his Mommy. As we expected, the jealousy quickly passed and they became friends and playmates as soon as she could move around enough to be interesting to him.

One way to help avoid serious sibling rivalry between same-gender kids who are close in age is to help them explore their individual gifts and talents. For example, if the older child plays the trumpet, it would be best if the other plays a different instrument, as much as he or she wants to imitate the older sibling. Or if one child is an excellent soccer player, the other can be steered toward a different sport. The idea is to make your home as non-competitive as possible.

Building Into Each Child’s Talent

In our home, all of the kids play several instruments, but each one has sort of become the ‘family expert’ at one or a few. They all play guitar well, but Abby is the one who plays guitar in the family band. Alex plays drums amazingly well and performs weekly at church, but in the family band Gabe is the drummer and Alex sings and plays bass. When they play Irish music, Alex is the Irish flutist, Abby the guitarist and Gabe the bodhran player.

Another thing that seems to help avoid competitiveness is that as a family we really celebrate and cherish each child’s talents. For example, Gabe is incredibly gifted at math. At just nine years old he’s already in seventh-grade math!

Abby is an average math student and is performing at grade level – fifth-grade math at ten years old. She could choose to get upset and competitive with Gabe, who passed her up two years ago, but she doesn’t.

Why not? For one thing, Gabe is an understanding little brother who is very careful not to ‘rub it in’. He even helps her when she has problems with her math homework. For another thing, Abby is a much more gifted baker, artist, and guitarist than Gabe. That gives her a sense of confidence, as we are constantly lauding her talents in those areas and many others.

Our Identity as God’s Children

I believe that ultimately we as human beings need to get a true sense of our identity from who we are as God’s children. When we moved to Colombia, I gave up almost everything I was good at (performing and teaching trumpet, living in an English-speaking culture, etc.) to do something I’d never done before (pastor, missionary, living in a Latino culture, etc.)

There were many times when we first arrived in Colombia that I struggled with my identity. If I wasn’t a trumpet player anymore, who was I? How was I to identify myself? However, after several months, I actually found it incredibly healing to have gotten out from behind the trumpet, where I’d been defining my identity, and to have the opportunity to begin to truly discover who I am as a child of God.

Typically I put one hundred percent of my effort into everything I do. Regardless of my giving it my best, I still may not be the best Spanish speaker, pastor or missionary here in Medellin. Who cares? It shouldn’t be about ME anyway. We need to know that we are very special and unique to God. He made each one of us just as we are.  

I’m His favorite daughter – and so are you, women! You men are all his favorite sons! Maybe I can’t speak Spanish as fluently as I’d like, but there will always be something that I CAN do…I can LOVE people the way God calls me to. 1 John 4:8 says, “God is Love.”

Love Is the highest Kingdom Value

If I want to exude God, all I have to do is exude LOVE. I have found THAT holds a lot more Kingdom value than trying to compete to be the ‘best’.

The following are some suggestions for helping minimize sibling rivalry:

  • Encourage your children to solve their own problems together
  • ‘Speak life’ over each of your children, being careful not to verbally compare them favorably or unfavorably to each other
  • Find the special things about each child and encourage him or her in those things (for example, “Wow, Sarah…you make amazing brownies!” or “Henry, you really do a great job in finishing your homework on time!”)

By encouraging their strengths you will be building into their futures. Maybe little Sarah will become a master chef, while Henry will become a manager who runs his office in a timely, efficient manner.

If we think about our strengths and weaknesses, it’s quite interesting that we human beings typically spend about eighty percent of our time trying to get better at the things that are hard for us, while only putting about twenty percent of our time into getting better at the things that we’re already doing well.

Focus On Their Strengths

As parents, Tom and I have chosen a different approach. I want to help Abby ‘get by’ with math, finishing the basic requirements well enough to graduate. She and I are both pretty certain that she is not going to pursue a job someday as an accountant or a math teacher, so I don’t bother pushing her ahead too hard in that subject.

She’s hard-working and conscientious, tries her best and does a good enough job…that’s where we put the twenty percent. She’ll understand enough math to get along well enough in life. Where we put the eighty percent is in the things that she naturally excels in and enjoys.

My dad always said, “Choose as a career the thing that you would do for free.” For me back in the day, that was the trumpet. Now it’s being a mom and a missionary.  What is it for your children?