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Lucy and Linus Sibling Rivalry, Dr. Barb Psychologist

Can You Help Diffuse Sibling Rivalry?

Have you ever given thought to whether you treat your kids as well as your friends? Are there ways you unwittingly instigate sibling rivalry?

Erma Bombeck was an American humorist who brought this question to light in her story Supposing I Treated My Friends Like My Kids. She had heard a child psychologist comment that parents should treat their children with courtesy, dignity, and diplomacy as they would their best friend. At first, she thought, of course, she did treat her children impeccably; however, as she reflected, she wondered…

Following are some excerpts from her story, followed by my parenting strategies:

Did I really talk to my best friends like I talked to my children? Just suppose…our good friends, Fred and Eleanor, came to dinner one night and…

“Well, it’s about time you two got here! What have you been doing? Dawdling? Leave those shoes outside, Fred. They’ve got mud on them. And shut the door. Where were you born, in a barn?

When you imagine these comments, can you hear the condescending tone? The scorn? The disdain? The heavy sighs and irritated body language? Can you picture the children’s faces? Does Fred look embarrassed? Disheartened? Angry? Especially after he and Eleanor had just had so much fun playing outside with their friends? Did Eleanor gloat that her shoes are nevertheless free of mud?

I like to speak to children in a way to encourage them to think and take responsibility for their actions. I might say,

“I see you have mud on your shoes.” If Fred still takes a step forward, I would say, “Uh-oh!” At that point, he probably would realize he needed to take his shoes off but if not, it is time to request that he kindly remove his shoes. If he got mud on the floor, I would ask, “Now guess who gets to clean up the mud?”

If you notice, at no time did I berate the children, bully them, escalate the situation, or rob them of the fun they had earlier. I also did not rob them of the opportunity to learn and I didn’t even have to get angry to do that. I retained my dignity. My goal as a parent and psychologist is to model social skills. I probably would discuss a reminder about timeliness at a different, calm moment.

“Don’t tell me your hands are clean, Eleanor. I saw you playing with the dog. Fred, you sit over there and Eleanor you can sit with the half glass of milk. You know you’re all elbows when it comes to milk.”

To children, I might say, “Dinner will be ready as soon as everyone has washed up.” I would not have singled Eleanor out or called attention to her apparent problem spilling milk. I want to avoid activating sibling rivalry.

“Fred, I don’t see any cauliflower on your plate. Have you ever tried it? Well, try a spoonful. If you don’t like it, I won’t make you finish it, but if you don’t try it, you can just forget dessert.”

Talking to children in this way leads to insecurities, animosities, sibling rivalry, and believing parents have favorites. Our role as parents is to guide our children and help them learn to handle their weaknesses. We all have them. Have you ever noticed some adults with less-than-perfect table manners?

“Eleanor…don’t talk with food in your mouth. I can’t understand a word you’re saying. And use your napkin.”

Again, Eleanor is being chastised, humiliated, set up for bitterness. Can you picture Fred’s reaction–smirking as he sits up boldly, adorned with his napkin on his lap and a halo above his head? Is it any wonder that Eleanor feels her life is unfair? Do signs of sibling rivalry appear? How different it would seem if Eleanor’s parents told her, without sarcasm or hostility, that they think her words are important and would like to understand them.

So, if you treat your kids like your best friends, maybe they will grow up with good self-esteem, feeling loved, cherished, secure and confident. You can model what you teach with kindness, tolerance, and acceptance. Maybe your children will have less need to resort to sibling rivalry. Maybe they will be more respectful toward you as well. And when you see globs of mud on their shoes, it’s time to take a deep breath…before you respond.

Snoopy Winking, Dr. Barb