Sibling Rivalry, Controlling (cont.)

One exception to this is when a sibling is too young and too small to get out of the way or call for help. At those ages it is important for a parent to be present to supervise.

Are there any positive aspects to sibling rivalry?

Sure. When children struggle, compete, disagree and fight, they are learning about each other, they are learning about themselves. They are having to weigh their priorities and they are learning all kinds of other things. Every time they eventually lose control, it's another opportunity for them to begin to learn better impulse control. Every time they make a more selfish choice, it's an opportunity to learn to waive their own needs with the needs of the other child. Over time, the positive aspect of sibling rivalry is learning about relationships, learning to understand another person's feelings, to care about those feelings, and to accept one's own responsibility for that other person's well-being.

Although one can talk to many adults who have negative memories of their siblings, I think it maybe that those are the ones that often stick in our minds. And with some help, these adults can scratch beneath that surface to find some of the positive memories. There certainly are just as many adults who even with the fighting and confrontations, remember their childhood interactions with siblings fondly and really rely on their adult relationships with siblings as important supports in their lives.

My husband is always telling me that I "play favorites" to our daughter and don't spend enough time with our son. I don't enjoy "boy play" with trucks and balls and he doesn't really enjoy helping me in the kitchen, etc. What can I do to stop playing favorites?

That's another great question. Many times in families, when there are two children, particularly one child of each gender, pairs line up in the family where one parent feels more aligned with one child and the other with the other child. Sometimes these switch off, sometimes not.

I would wonder, in this family, as is often the case, whether or not the alliances that have gotten set up are in some way related to each parent's experience with their own parents when they were children. It might be helpful to try to stop and reflect back on one's own memories of which parent one was closest to because these certainly can be more powerful than we realize in influencing our feelings about each of our children.

In terms of what you can do to, as you say, stop playing favorites. I think the simplest and most effective thing would be to set up regular, reliable, privilege time that you spend just with your son. See this time just as a chance to be together and to get to know each other. I think that it's pretty likely that with that kind of time, over time, you will discover your own kind of closeness together that may even surprise you. You may need to choose something to do that's on neutral territory where you both feel comfortable. You may need to go somewhere where you can do something that you both like to do, rather than trying to engage with trucks or cooking -- that's going to ultimately leave either you or him cold.

My sister and I are nearly three years apart; we are 23 and 26 now. I remember as a child feeling very guilty when I hurt my sister and I would beg for forgiveness. It sounds like these are positive signs for parents to watch for that will make them see that one day the kids will get along. We do!

That's great. I think that guilt is probably an underrated emotion, but it is a powerful motivator. Every child needs to have the experience of guilt because it is one of the motivations for learning to do the right thing.

This participant is giving us another opportunity to see the silver lining of sibling conflict, which is that if each child then has the opportunity to experience their reaction to the conflict and examine their feelings. There are very important opportunities for learning that they would be deprived of if parents always tried to smooth everything over and to deny the importance of what we tend to consider as these negative experiences or interactions.

"I think that the reason why we wrote this book about sibling rivalry now is that it seemed to us that our world is having an awfully hard time dealing with disagreements and conflict and really seems to be struggling with intolerance and difficulty accepting differences."

Dr. Sparrow, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap things up for today, do you have any final words for us?

I think that the reason why we wrote this book about sibling rivalry now is that it seemed to us that our world is having an awfully hard time dealing with disagreements and conflict and really seems to be struggling with intolerance and difficulty accepting differences. We thought that it was important to go back to the early experiences in families, to look again at the opportunities, the early opportunities, where parents can help children learn to work out their own conflicts and to get through them so that they can get along. We should almost see this as a parable for what we, as citizens in this conflict-torn world, need to learn to do so that we can make our world a more peaceful place.

Our thanks to Joshua Sparrow, MD for joining us today. To find out more about sibling rivalry, pick up a copy of Understanding Sibling Rivalry , co-authored by Dr. Sparrow and T. Berry Brazelton, MD.

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