Who's Hurt the Most?
It would be naive to miss the true meaning of sibling conflict: it often represents a form of manipulation of parents. Quarreling and fighting provide an opportunity for both children to "capture" adult attention. It has been written, "Some children had rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all." Toward this end, a pair of obnoxious kids can tacitly agree to bug their parents until they get a response — even if it is an angry reaction.
One father told me recently that his son and his nephew began to argue and then beat each other with their fists. Both fathers were nearby and decided to let the fight run its natural course. During the first lull in the action one of the boys glanced sideways toward the passive men and said, "Isn't anybody going to stop us before we get hurt?!" The fight, you see, was something neither boy wanted. Their violent combat was directly related to the presence of the two adults and would have taken a different form if the boys had been alone. Children will often "hook" their parents' attention and intervention in this way.
Believe it or not, this form of sibling rivalry is easiest to control. The parent must simply render the behavior unprofitable to each participant. Instead of wringing their hands and crying and begging and screaming (which actually reinforces the disruptive behavior and makes it worse), a mother or father should approach the conflict with dignity and self control.
I would recommend that a modified version of the following "speech" be given to quarreling children, depending on the age and circumstances:
"Tommy and Chuck, I want you to sit in these chairs and give me your complete attention. Now you both know that you have been harassing and irritating each other all through the morning. Tommy, you knocked over the castle that Chuck was building, and Chuck, you messed up Tommy's hair. So every few minutes I've found myself telling you to quit quarreling. Well, I'm not angry at you, because all brothers fight like that, but I am telling you that I'm tired of hearing it. I have important things to do, and I can't take the time to be separating a couple of scratching cats every few minutes.
Now listen carefully. If the two of you want to pick on each other and make yourselves miserable, then be my guest [assuming there is a fairly equal balance of power between them]. Go outside and fight until you're exhausted. But it's not going to occur under my feet anymore. It's over! And you know that I mean business when I make that kind of statement. Do we understand each other?"
Would that implied warning end the conflict? Of course not — at least, not the first time. It would be necessary to deliver on the promise of "action." Having made the boundaries clear, I would act decisively the instant either boy returned to his bickering. If I had separate bedrooms, I would confine one child to each room for at least thirty minutes of complete boredom — without radio or television. Or I would assign one to clean the garage and the other to mow the lawn. Or I would make them take a nap. My avowed purpose would be to make them believe me the next time I offered a suggestion for peace and tranquility.
Jealousy is often the by-product of comparison.
Questions and Answers
Why do my kids have to fight all the time? I have three of them, and they drive me crazy. Why can't they be nice to each other?
Our 3-year-old daughter was thrilled about having a new brother or sister. Now, however, she shows signs of jealousy. Please suggest some ways I can ease her through this period of adjustment.
Our daughter is showing signs of jealousy. How can I help her adjust to a sibling?
Review Frequently Asked Questions
StoriesIf you've been through a experience related to this topic, we invite you to share your story with others.
Share Your Story
Other Things to Consider
Children: Are They Worth It?
Children can be demanding, frustrating and exhausting. But they can also be a tremendous source of positive change in our lives.
Transitions: Having a Baby, Preparing for Adolescence
Life Pressures: Working Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Time for Family
Relationships: Parents and Adult Children, Blended Families