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Sibling Rivalry
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Chicago Community Kollel

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Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

Do you have any advice about getting my children to play nicely with each other? We have 2 sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 4 to 9 years old.

Many days, I feel like a referee instead of a parent.

Any advice you may have would be most appreciated.

Thank you

Exasperated mom.

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Dear Exasperated:

I commend you for your restraint when you described yourself as acting as “a referee” with your children when they quarrel with each other. Nearly all parents who discuss these types of issues with me are far harsher in their self-evaluation. They often question their parenting skills, the ‘normalcy’ of their home life, and wonder if their family is ‘dysfunctional’ for experiencing challenges in getting their children to interact positively with each other.

Ironically, sibling rivalry is a sign of a normal, healthy home. The ‘luxury’ of bickering over minor matters is one reserved for children who are raised in nurturing environments. Research shows that in dysfunctional homes or homes where there is an extraordinary amount of anxiety; there is little or no sibling rivalry. In these stressful homes, the children tend to cling together for security.

This seemingly curious phenomenon would be analogous to the political landscape in most countries. When nations are blessed with peace, there seems to be endless bickering among many of the elected officials. However, when presented with a common enemy or tragedy, people with opposing viewpoints set aside their differences and unite for the common good.

With that in mind, it may be reassuring to think of your home as a nurturing environment where your children have the security to vie for your love, attention – and who gets the first pick of the toys in the cabinet.

Another positive aspect of the challenges associated with sibling rivalry is that it offers children the opportunity to develop their ability to engage in conflict resolution. The harsh reality of life is that your children will be faced with an endless succession of peer disputes that need to be resolved – in school, summer camp, at work, … and in their retirement communities. Hashing things out in a positive and productive manner with their siblings help them develop this critical life-skill. If you think about it, dealing with parents is the first experience that our children have in learning to deal with authority, while interacting with siblings allows them to prepare for relating to their friends, co-workers, and spouses.

One of my vivid memories of the years when our four eldest children were growing up (Hashem blessed us with five children; four are now adults, and we have an 11-year old daughter who manages the other six members of our household.), is that of my wife sitting with them and gently informing them that our home is the safe place in which they get to practice their relationships. Safe, because she would remind them, that as siblings they will always love each other regardless of their temporary disagreements.

Some practical tips:

• Reward your children for cooperating and for settling their differences amicably. Charts or point systems that result in rewards for good behaviors over a period of time are very effective tools. Keep in mind the timeless advice of the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 10:5) that engaging in positive actions for personal benefit, in the long term, achieves the result of improved skill-sets.

  • It is generally unhelpful to attempt to determine which child is to blame for the argument that ensued. That will often get each of the litigants to get you on his or her side – so your mediations may in fact increase the rivalry. Try to get your children to work things out themselves. In educational terms, we refer to this as “a guide on the side,” (helping students explore the learning themselves, a far better way to go), rather than “a sage on the stage” (an all-knowing teacher who imparts information with little active participation from the student).
  • Step in and set firm limits as far as aggressive behaviors or shouting is concerned. Tell your children that you will need to separate them – giving them a “time-out” for a specific period of time (15-20 minutes, not two weeks!) if they cannot come up with a solution on their own. They may discover that it is in their mutual benefit to work things out. This concept can also by applied to objects, as well. If your children are quarreling over a toy, for example, you may consider telling them that you will need to take it away until they can share it properly.

In my role as Principal, I often need to mediate ‘disputes’. When the issues are not too serious, I will often tell the two children that I will gladly stay after school with them and help them solve their argument – perhaps even with their parents as part of our team. Or, I say, they can go off to the side for a few minutes, resolve it on their own, and apologize to each other. Which option do you think they chose?

  • Keep a careful eye on things to see to it that one of your children in not giving in all the time. This can be harmful since it may be setting the stage for the “good, giving child” to be exploited. And it is not good for your other child as well, as it may be teaching him or her to take advantage of the good nature of others. Always keep in mind the golden path of moderation – the shvil hazhav – charted by the wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon).
  • Teenagers often have a complex relationship with their younger siblings. They love them and may enjoy playing with them, but often get irritated when the younger children invade their space or ‘bug them.’ This is very normal, and when it happens, try and give your teen the space that he or she needs.

Finally, with parenting, as with all arenas of life, it is important to distinguish between your short-term and longer-term goals. While your children are small, your goals are probably to keep your sanity (that is a very important one!) and to help your children co-exist with each other. Your longer-term goals most likely include having your children develop meaningful and lasting relationships with each other. These may be similar goals, and some of the techniques noted above may help your long-term objectives. But keep in mind that helping your children remain lifelong friends is an entirely different subject than helping resolve their differences. (Perhaps we will address this important matter in a future column.)

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