Sunday, April 17, 2011

Siblings With/Out Rivalry

Sibling Rivalry, as they say, is as old as tape decks and the Rolling Stones. Or, maybe it’s Cain and Abel. Either way, it’s the fighting over rock music or punk, tape decks and stereos, and other cultural references to life 1987 that place the best-selling book of that time, Siblings Without Rivalry, in another era. And, perhaps the book’s premise of following the progress of a group of parents throughout a series of seminars on sibling rivalry feels like what would now be the plot of a reality TV show--one that was made before the boundaries of political correctness shaped what people said, if not what they felt.

But, setting aside the understandable differences between life in 1987 and in 2011, and looking at the basic hope of parents to raise happy, self confident children who are able to love and cooperate with their siblings, the book is timeless.

And it reveals an aspect of sibling rivalry that was evident in the informal survey I conducted among readers last week. Children grow up to become adults who may or may not have reconciled their rivalry with their sisters and brothers. But they almost never forget what their parents did to quell, ignore or feed the flame of competition or typecasting within the family when they were kids.

So it was with the hope that I might create a more harmonious relationship between my two girls as well as with a little fear of the potential for a future of regrettable pain and resentment that I took on this subject.

The University of Michigan’s site for parents (YourChild), describes sibling rivalry as, “Jealousy, competition and fighting between brothers and sisters....”  The website, as with the majority of readers who responded to my survey, said sibling rivalry was a point of parental stress.

It’s pretty annoying to the kids, too.

Some call it a reminder that beneath our intellectual desire for a peaceful family, we have an even stronger biological need to survive and thrive.

But, considering we’re not birds, a species with which the term “siblicide” and all its complex and ecological meaning is often associated, and that only one reader commented that the biggest rivalry was between her six year old and her adopted greyhound dog (troubling, but outside the scope of many techniques not requiring both conversation and milk bones), we have the idea that words and thoughtful strategies can have some positive influence.

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 That was my hope, at least, when I read for the second and more diligent time, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s classic, Siblings Without Rivalry.

The book looks at many aspects of rivalry and ways of coping, but I took away three basic points. It’s clear from the poll that many of you have already made these part of your lives, but they were good reminders for me:

1. Listen to what your kids say and validate their feelings. Describe what you hear your kids saying. Not only did this force me to listen, it bought me time as I tried to figure out what to say next.

2. Show “Leadership” as a Parent. The book does not describe a parent’s role with this particular term, but it suggests that while you have options when dealing with rivalry—to ignore and see how it goes, to step in and suggest the kids find a solution, to guide them towards a solution, to send one (or both) to their rooms, or to find another strategy that fits the circumstance, above all,  it’s you who sets the tone and expectation that civility and respect are possible and necessary.

3. You can turn Rivals into Teammates. The example used both in the book and on the University of Michigan site was one in which two kids were asked to clean up a room. Instead of racing against each other, they were asked to race against the clock. Fast-paced cleaning sounds exhausting, but you get the idea.

The stakes were high the day after I finished the book. We were a few days away from my oldest daughter’s birthday and the house was filling up with balloons, birthday cards, and a few early presents.

“Mom,” my oldest said to me, “Ava took my balloon.”

I could not write a more clichéd scenario, but I’ll point out, it was a water balloon. In the hands of a two and a half year old, this presented not only an issue of property rights but a high probability of sogginess.

Listen to the aggrieved, I reminded myself. Describe what you hear her saying.

“I know you’re upset," I said, “and I know you don’t like it when your sister takes your things.”

She was intrigued by the attention to her feelings and it was surprisingly easy, even having watched only one or two episodes of Dr. Phil in my entire life—to come up with these phrases.

Turning to her sister, I said, “I know you want a balloon, too. But, whose balloon is that?”

She said nothing. The threat of being told what do to was replaced by an unexpected question and opportunity, and the new experience gave her pause.

Then, very gently, she handed her sister the pink water balloon.

Her sister smiled and accepted it. “You know what?” she said. “You can have it. I’ll get another one.”

It was beautiful.

It was also a bit terrifying; the two year once again had the water balloon. But, if anything’s clear in parenting, it’s that we can’t predict our moments of success.

For the rest of the afternoon, my daughters played as they’d not done in a long time. There was a change in the air. It seemed not only were they happier, but I felt more hopeful that we might be onto a way of toning down the struggle over toys and attention.

The book warns of problems in later years when parents define their kids by traits, and in a sense typecast them.

You’re the good student..... You’re the gregarious, social one....You're more responsible than your sister...

Not only did assigning kids to roles make them feel that they were not seen as individuals, but two other things happened. The “good kid” felt he should not associate (or befriend) the criticized one for fear the parents would be disappointed in him, thus exacerbating the rivalry. The exalted child also resented the parents for pitting her against the other child, or allowing for no room to mess up. Of course, the other sibling suffered greatly, too, but it was interesting to read how, even in praise, we can hurt.

Turning back to the enduring memories of readers who took the survey, what were some of the things people said when I asked them what their parents did (or did not do) to both exacerbate or mediate the competition?

“Always treated us with fairness and respect. Never showed favoritism.”

“Left us to our own devices...didn't help matters at all.”

“Encouraged us to have different types of activities.”

“Quite simply, my parents gave both my brother and me a lot of individual attention.”

“Pigeon holed us based on our personality at the time and our talents...”


“It was definitely a "figure it out yourselves attitude.”"

“ long ago I can't really remember.”

In my second reading of Siblings Without Rivalry, I took a bit more time with each page, and noticed something I had overlooked the first time I read it, just weeks after my second child was born.

Before the table of contents is the dedication: To all the grown-up siblings who still have a hurt child inside of them.

I did not feel much rivalry with my older brother, but I see it between my girls. And given both of their personalities, I know whatever actions my husband and I take (or do not take) will become elements of their upbringing they will never forget.

* Special thanks to the inimitable mother and inventor of lunch boxes, Kelly Lester of Easy LunchBoxes, for helping spread the word about the survey and to all of you had the time to share your thoughts.


Tim Morrissey said...

It's clear that you put a lot of time and thought into this post, Sarah. And it's a marvelous treatise on the topic.

At one point, I thought our son and daughter - 19 months apart in age - would, despite our best efforts, end up as adults merely "enduring" each other. As adults, they're best of friends, with that special sibling bond.

I think a key, which you've clearly identified and have had success with, is the validation of their feelings and actively listening to them when they feel slighted or are annoyed by a sibling. There are usually at least two sides to every story.

Great post.

EasyLunchboxes (Kelly Lester) said...

What an excellent article! I forgot that I own and have read the very excellent "Siblings Without Rivalry". But that was when I had two girls who actually got along pretty well, maybe because they were almost 5 years apart. Now I have three and they aren't so small anymore. There is a LOT of tension between the younger two, who are only 2 years apart. While I feel that we validate their feelings and listen to their grievances, lately I've been thinking that we pay TOO much attention (especially to the smaller one who seems to enjoy the drama). Sometimes when we stop listening/trying to mediate, the conflict fizzles out a lot faster... but this is a serious work in progress. LOL, that last answer you quoted from your survey (what did your parents do?) was mine: “ long ago I can't really remember.” But I think that, like you, it's because I had brothers, and I never felt in any kind of competition with them. This whole girl thing is new to me. Ha - you'd think after 18 years of raising kids I'd have figured it out. Not giving up yet. Thank you for your wonderful insights. I'm going back to read your post again and also dig out my copy of that great book!

parenting ad absurdum said...

Great post as always, Sarah, but as soon as you said tape deck and rolling stones, I went into a nostalgiac haze...;).