Sibling rivalry: what our kids really fight about

My boys, walking side by side. No sibling rivalry here!

My boys, walking side by side. No sibling rivalry here!

Anyone with siblings knows that living with brothers and sisters has its ups and downs. Who else can give you a kiss or a hug, then just a few minutes later pull your hair, kick you, or even worse? As parents, we don’t always get to witness our kids’ quiet, tender moments but we hear the quarrels loud and clear! What the heck are siblings fighting about anyway?

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s must-read book “Nurture Shock” has a whole chapter dedicated to sibling rivalry. As a mother of two young boys, reading these 15 pages has given me a lot of insight and reassurance. Studies show siblings between the ages of 3 and 7 clash an average of 3.5 times per hour. That equals to 10 minutes of arguing every hour – how unproductive! It’s striking to learn that the way siblings interact when they’re little will remain the same in their adulthood (hopefully with less physical fights!). So anything parents can do to encourage positive sibling interactions will have lifetime consequences.

Bronson and Merryman suggest to forget about Freud and his idea that children fight over their parents’ love and attention. Poor Freud, just when I mentioned his Oedipus concept was overblown in my previous post… Well, the famous psychiatrist can roll over in his grave but the data is clear. Less than 10% of sibling fights happen to be over parental affection. As much as we’d like to think our kids worship us, we’re not the center of their arguments. So what do siblings fight about? 75-80% of arguments are about, drumroll please… TOYS!!!

This theory is 100% true at our house! No matter how many toys they have, my boys always want to play with the same one at any given time. This what I get to hear 3.5 times per hour:
“Give me that”
“I want it”
“It’s mine”
“I got it first”
“I was playing with that”
And my favorite,
“Give it back or I’m going to rip your arm off”
This one is my clue to intervene…

Even though individual personalities can shape sibling interactions, the best we can do is to help our kids develop tools for conflict prevention, not just resolution. Bronson and Merryman suggest to help them think of ways to play well together and how to work out conflicts on their own. This is a tough angle for me because my attitude towards any toy conflict is to take the toy away – problem solved! So it’s a learning process for me too – back off and let them figure it out…

Another book I really like on this subject is “Siblings Without Rivalry” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. These two brilliant ladies, also authors of “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”, provide many tools and tips for parents and kids to handle hundreds of situations. Helping kids improve their communications skills will lead to a more peaceful household. Hmm, maybe we should implement such lessons in the workplace…

My boys still have a lot of skills to learn but it’s good for them to start early, one day at a time! When I hear them giggling and laughing, and making up some imaginary play together in peace, I know something’s working.

Have you found tools that work great to solve or avoid sibling conflicts? If so, would you mind sharing?

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2 responses to “Sibling rivalry: what our kids really fight about

  1. Good morning! I surely have enjoyed looking around this site.
    I have raised six children, and am one of five, myself, so I think I should input, here.
    Children do not quarrel when parents are in view. Period. Sometimes the best way to break their bad habit of quarreling (when it seems nothing else is working) is to make them stay in your presence for a few days–a sort of grounding, but not so bad because they are allowed to play, just must stay in sight. It’s as if they can get a conscience about right behavior by osmosis, if a parent is near.
    Also, taking away the victim-toy is close to the right answer, for remedial treatments, but not enough; taking away all toys (TAAT) FOR DAYS can make a difference. TAAT causes them to use their imaginations, do educational activites, hang around Mom or Dad, go outside and watch bugs living in the grass, etc., but more importantly, not to quarrel. Amazing. Of course, TAAT is a temporary application, with weaning them back onto their favorite toys, gradually. It carries with it the implication that next time, it will be for a few more days…
    A friend’s husband was so tired of quarreling in his children that he issued this ultimatum: NO MORE PLAY for the rest of the year. It was October. I thought it harsh, but perhaps not harmful, and was curious enough to constantly inquire with my friend, on their progress. They were allowed any educational pastime they desired, so my friend borrowed all our videos about math, geography, history, etc. She rounded up chemistry kits, ant farms, and other educational props and taught them to cook and bake. Lotsa cookies, those days! Oh, and Dad lifted the edict for times when cousins were around, bless him. Although the children seemed a bit subdued during that time, I noticed something amazing, something like we see in adults during adult times of grander austerity such as flood or fire: they bonded together to help each other through it. Just amazing. The bond lasted, too. They grew truly to despise their old quarrelling habits and love baking and learning.
    I think the unifying link in all these treatments may be the length of time. Perhaps we parents hope for too much relief from a quick fix? Perhaps any treatment that is a constant and lengthy reminder does more good? More work for us, but what is the goal: less work, or fewer quarrels? Anything worth having is worth working for, I say.

    • Thanks for sharing your advice! I have to say, I understand your idea of having the parents around to limit the quarrelling, but somehow in our house, it has the completely opposite effect! If my kids can find an activity they can do together away from us, they’ll do great. Ironically it’s when they play closest to us that hell breaks loose. I think they count on us interfering in their dispute (their dad does it ALL the time, while I try to stay away or warn them to figure it out), so this factor increases the fights. I do like the idea of taking most toys away. I sometimes kick the kids out in the backyard to play there because I’m tired of hearing the quarrels indoors and they love it.

      And you’re so right, it is hard work for parents to guide our kids through these hard times. But honestly, that’s what parents are supposed to do…

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