Staying Out of the Sibling Fray

sibling rivalry sibling loveMy children fight with each other like an old married couple. The use phrases like you always and you never and you’re not listening to me. They proclaim their undying love and affection for each other with one breath, and declare they never liked each other at all with the next breath. They can play together so nicely that it makes my heart sing. They can bicker with each other until I feel like my ears are bleeding and I just want the fighting to stop, right now, this instant, I can’t take another second. They are partners in crime when they conspire to hide in the closet with a bag of marshmallows, and they are arch enemies when they decide that the marshmallow distribution is not perfectly equal.

I understand that this sort of thing is par for the course with siblings. I have a sister who is two years younger than I am, and I remember what it was like to grow up with her. I remember the way that always having my sister around could be alternately comforting and stifling. On the one hand, when it was just the two of us in a sea of adults there was always a ready playmate. On the other hand, sometimes we were just sick of each other. We forged a complicated relationship that, to this day, remains unique in my life. When I’m with her I speak a little faster, my voice pitches a little higher, and I use a verbal shorthand that I don’t use with anyone else. She’s my sister, and she always will be, for better or worse.

Growing up, sibling dissent wasn’t tolerated in my house. My sister and I were expected to get along. If we fought over a toy, that toy went away. If we hurt each others’ feelings, we had to make up. My hippie parents wanted to sew harmony, not dissent, in our home. As a result, my sister and I learned to hide our fights, retreating to our room and talking in whispers. We knew that if our mother heard us, the consequences would be far worse than anything that we would dole out to each other.

sibling rivalry sibling loveMy own parenting style is a little more laid back. For the most part, I try to stay out of the sibling fray. I look at my children’s relationship with each other as a sort of testing ground, where they can learn about fairness, negotiation and conflict resolution. The more that I butt out, the better for all parties.

Unfortunately, my children don’t always respect my parenting decision. They look to me as a moderator. They come to me with their stories of how their sibling has wronged them. They both talk at me, at top volume, trying to make sure that I hear their side of the story. Provided that no serious harm has been done, I try to bow out. I tell them that I want them to work things out for themselves. I tell them that I really don’t like it when they fight, and I don’t want to take sides. I tell them that I’m making dinner / cleaning the floor (yet again) / working / reading / trying to hide in the bathroom. They don’t care. They want to tell me all about their dispute over the bubble wands, in all its gritty detail.

I can see where my kids are coming from. We all want to feel understood, especially by our parents. When your sense of fairness and justice has been violated by your brother or sister, you look to the adult who’s present to share your story. Once one kid is coming to me, of course the other needs to come, too. You want to make sure that your side is represented. I understand all of that. Mostly, though, I just want the fighting to stop.

And so it goes, day after day. I try to let my kids work things out for themselves. Sometimes they do, and life is grand. Sometimes they don’t, and everyone is sad. No matter which way things are going, though, I can see that my kids are forming their own special and unique relationship. They know the joys and aggravations of having a sibling, and I am happy for them. I know that it isn’t always easy (or quiet), but I also know that decades from now, they will be so glad they have always had each other.

When your kids are fighting, do you wade in or stay out? I’d love to hear your own tales of sibling rivalry.

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  1. I have a brother who is 6 years younger than me and I was always expected to be the more responsible one (naturally). Although my parents knew my brother did some horrid things to me (no, really horrid), they expected me to let a lot go because I should understand, and I felt (yes my perspective) that punishments were dealt more harshly to me because I “should know better.” I try reeeeally hard listen when my kids feel wronged, and talk to them about taking each others’ perspectives (ok, can only do this with the older ones – a modified quick version with the 3 yo) as long as they are not tattling on each other constantly. But a great deal of time I just let them battle it out, as long as I can deal with the shrieking and yelling. They will have their sibling relationship well after I am out of the picture and I want them to develop their own unique connection, much like you and your sister. So far mine seem to have the perfect “love-hate” closeness that sisters should have.
    christy’s last post … {this moment}My Profile

    • Yeah, I totally think that more was expected of me, and that I was punished more harshly, as the older sibling. I try to keep that in mind when I’m dealing with my own kids. It’s really tempting to go easier on the younger child, because they’re just less equipped in general, but I really try to avoid that.

  2. I am going to try a new tactic. It is difficult, but I feel that I’ve given my kids the tools by being a moderator for their arguments for the past several years. So when they come to me, I will give them sympathy and listen to their “side” of whatever, but then I am going to ask them “What will you do about (fill in the blank)?” and then let them come up with some solutions. It takes time but it also teaches them the skills they will need to resolve conflicts when I am not around. Like the author said, a sibling is a bit of a testing ground for real life where (unfortunately) people don’t always do the right thing or care one bitty bit about who they hurt.

  3. I hear you Amber. I feel like I should be wearing a whistle around my kneck at all times! Like you though, I do my best to let them work it out. Recently at a family outing my SIL (who is raising 1 child) commented harshly about my lack of involvement with the kids – her child doe not tolerate any confrontation and that’s how she would like it to remain. Part of me wishes my kids were angelicly perfect all the time, but really – who is? I certainly am not!
    My siblings are all much older than me so I really grew up as an only child. Everything was my way all the time. I can’t relate to my kids lilke you can, but I still want them to work it on their own – it’s my job to give them the tools to do that….constant repitition and reminding.
    My best tool to date to deal with tattle tailing – asking the one telling on the other if they are getting their siste IN or OUT of trouble..I only want to hear it if they are getting their sister OUT of trouble – they have to work it on their own otherwise.
    Heather’s last post … Girl TimeMy Profile

    • I’ve tried the same thing with tattling. So far I’m not sure my kids have ‘gotten’ it, but we’re getting there. It’s Barbara Coloroso, right? I do love her!

  4. What really resonates for me in this post is the bit about your complicated relationship with your sister. That’s me too! With my younger sister! Way too complicated. I really don’t want that for my kids – I tell them every day that they are each other’s best friend and will be for life, and hope that this brainwashing sticks. I have friends who are truly best friends with their sisters and I am envious of that closeness. My sister and I were never encouraged to be close, to do things together, dress alike, play together, so now in our 30s? We don’t really either, which is sad. And when my kids fight or tattle, unless there is true physical harm, or extremely inappropriate language, my husband and I do not get involved. That said, when the cause is one daughter’s over-tiredness, and if the timing is right, that’s when that girl gets carried upstairs to start bedtime a few minutes early:)

    • There are certainly situations where intervention is required, because someone is overtired / hungry / etc. But by all means, staying out is the way to go, I think, if you can!

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