Sibling Rivalry, Controlling (cont.)

MEMBER QUESTION:
It's like a war zone at my house! My three sons are constantly fighting with each other over everything . Even the noise level is too much to handle. My husband says "They're just being boys." I grew up with sisters. Is this really just the way that boys act?

SPARROW:
It would be helpful to know a little more about them and to begin with their ages, but sure, boys are usually louder, more physical, and more openly aggressive with each other.

Without knowing more, my best guess is that your husband is probably right. And if you can manage to put up with the noise level or find something to muffle your ears with, you will do best to stay out of their struggles and encourage them to work them out on their own.

If you had the sense that one of the boys was always the one who was repeatedly excluded, rejected or victimized, then there might be a different set of concerns. But more typically, when siblings struggle with each other those roles revolve. That will be your reassuring sign.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My brother and his wife try to make things "fair" all the time with their four kids, even though they vary from 10 years to 2 years old. It seems like a recipe for disaster to me. Not everyone can always have the same thing, the same size ice cream scoop or the same face time with Mom. How do you teach them that life isn't fair without sounding mean or like a drill sergeant?

SPARROW:
I guess the answer depends on what you mean by fair. I certainly agree that fair isn't the same as getting the same thing. You're right that children of different ages need different things. Parents should feel perfectly confident in asserting and helping their children to understand and accept, as much as they may resist it, that being fair means identifying each child's different needs and responding to those. Being fair doesn't mean the same thing for each child.

As for teaching children that life isn't fair, that's another matter. I do think that whether or not life is, parents certainly ought to aspire to be fair -- and that isn't the same thing as treating each child in the same way. I also think that whether or not life is fair, parents need to uphold fairness as an ideal that we all shoot for even if we don't always make it. Again, the ideal isn't to treat each child or every person in the same way, but to treat each according to his or her needs.

MEMBER QUESTION:
I have 14-year-old and 6-year-old girls. They both have strong personalities and get along well at times, but at other times they fight constantly. I find it difficult to get my 14-year-old to not bug the 6-year-old and she often says that I play favorites. She is old enough to know better. How much should I be involved due to the age difference?

SPARROW:
These are such great questions. There is a little section in the last chapter in the book on sibling rivalry that we entitled Favorites because this is such a common concern for parents.

I think it's reassuring to hear that there is this back and forth between the getting along well at times and fighting at others because that's really what a sibling relationship looks like.

Being criticized as a parent for playing favorites by a child is certainly a skillful way of getting you where it hurts. And you're especially likely to feel vulnerable if you've struggled with your own feelings of responding differently to each child. But one of the common misunderstandings that parents have is that the different feelings we have for our children means that we might love one more or one less. It may be helpful for you instead to rethink that as actually just loving them differently, which is necessary and perfectly fine. That may make you less vulnerable to this kind of criticism of playing favorites.

I do think that when you get involved, you can interfere with them working it out themselves. You may find it most effective, even with this age difference of eight years, saying to both children, "Look, I know the two of you care about each other a lot even when you spend more than half the time fighting with each other. And I know you both know how to look after each other and work things out and that's what I expect you to do." By saying that, you're certainly implying that the 14-year-old has some responsibility, given her age, to not take advantage of that imbalance. You're couching it as not something you're going to make her do, but something that you respect her to have the ability to take responsibility for on her own and that may go over better with her.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My children are five years apart. The youngest is always tattling on the oldest, while the oldest denies everything . I don't know who to believe! What can I do to stop the tattling? How do I know who to punish?

SPARROW:
These really are such great questions! The reality is that you usually won't know who started it, and you can predict that each child will point the finger at the other one. You can just take a deep breath and relax and accept that and say, "I know you both want me to blame the other one, but guess what? I'm not going to blame either of you -- you're both responsible. There's no way I can figure out which one of you did what when I wasn't here, so I'm going to have to hold you both responsible." Now, some parents fear that this is not fair. But what it does is it pushes back the responsibility on the children to keep things under control enough so that they don't draw you in this way.

Now, they may unite with greater strength against you. But I would not be particularly worried about that because one of your main goals as a parent is for them to have this strong relationship. And if your punishment for both of them isn't exaggerated or disproportionate to their misbehavior, then I don't think either of them will really lose faith in you.

"Avoid picking out one for punishment for anything that both have had some involvement in. Focus on the strengths of each of them without comparison."