Declaration of War
If you have more than one child, you will inevitably have sibling wars. In fact, when you brought Number Two home from the hospital, you entered the battlefield, because your Number One will at some point feel like you prefer the baby over her. In fact, if you were happy with her, why did you go out and get a new, younger model? Even kids who absolutely love their new brother or sister will feel doubtful about their place in the family at some point.
Sometimes clashes occur because there are personality differences. One child likes quiet and the other wants to create havoc in the house. They want different things because they are different ages, or because they are the same age. And sometimes, just like their parents, kids are just having a bad day.
Whatever the reason, war is bound to erupt and disturb your domestic tranquility.
So what’s a parent to do?
I raised five “only children,” so I’ve developed some tips that seem to work for most people. Here are my top five.
Teach peaceful communication.
Kids aren’t Chatty Cathies, preprogrammed to say the right things. When conflicts arise, so do emotions. We often try to mediate by reminding them to “use their words.” But which words? In the heat of the moment, kids just can’t call up rational language, because they are not feeling rational. So it seems like we’re always telling them what the limits are, over and over. And guess what? It eventually works!
Teaching peaceful communication takes time and repetition. Develop a script and stick to it, even when it doesn’t seem to be working. Teaching kids to interact appropriately can be a simple matter, really. Try this three-step method.
Acknowledge feelings and wants. “You wanted your sister to stop yelling at you so you hit her.”
Set limit. “No hitting. Ever. Hitting hurts.”
Offer alternative. “Tell you sister, ‘Don’t yell at me.'”
Help children stand up for themselves.
If you constantly come to their aid when arguments arise—especially if you tend to take one child’s side more often than the other—you’re simply asking for the behavior to continue. Just because one is older doesn’t mean she should have to take abuse from her younger sibling. Instead of rescuing them, teach them how to stand up for themselves.
Memaw: Liam, you seem upset. What do you need to tell your sister?
Liam: She keeps yelling at me. I don’t like that!
Memaw: Remy, Liam doesn’t like it when you yell at him. Can you stop, please? Do I need to help you find a way to speak quietly?
Allowing each child to express his or her needs and backing them up when necessary speaks volumes to them about how much you believe they are competent and can handle the situation on their own.
There’s a better way to share.
When you force sharing, you are actually perpetuation unhealthy competition. Your child learns that if she makes enough noise, she’ll get what she wants even if someone else has it. They also learn that you are in charge of things and you arbitrarily choose who gets what when, usually based on who is making the most noise. Instead, try using this technique.
When a child picks up a toy, it’s his until he chooses to put it down, or until some specified time (like meal time). He may choose to give it to his sibling, but he doesn’t have to. If he puts it down, the other child must ask, “Are you through with your turn?” Letting the children self-regulate teaches valuable lessons. They learn that everybody eventually gets a turn, even if they have to wait. They know that crying is okay, but it won’t change the rules. When they decided to share, they feel good about themselves and each other.
There’s no comparison.
Comparing siblings to each other (or to other children) is a sure-fire way to start war. “Look at how well your brother is eating his dinner” is not going to endear him to his sister. Even making positive comparisons is not a good idea. “I like the way you always remember to say please and thank you. Now if only your brother would, too!” conveys the idea that she is the “good child” and he is the “bad child.” Since kids often think in black and white terms, she will think that she is loved more because she is good and therefore has a vested interest in making sure he remains the “bad child.” Praise each child individually without comparing them to anyone else. “You are so diligent about doing your homework. I appreciate that!”
If you make kindness and generosity the norm in your home, kids will learn to speak and act that way toward each other. In Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Men, Jo Marsh kept a journal where she wrote about the children on a daily basis. Keeping a journal where you write down acts of kindness or generosity from your kids makes for happy reading at the end of the day or perhaps once a week after dinner. Hearing how they both gave and received promotes happiness and feeling good about doing good.
Love each one best.
If your daughter knows she couldn’t be better loved, she won’t be worried that you love her brother more. If he knows that he will have special time with you, he won’t be jealous when you also have special time with her. Laugh with each child, deeply and fully from the belly. Guidance instead of force will nearly always garner cooperation. Be empathetic so they feel safe sharing their emotions. Make sure they realize that love is a bottomless well. You will never run out of love because you gave so much to a sibling that there’s none left for her.
These things are great ideas for ending the sibling wars and declaring peace. No one needs to live in hostile territory!