John Cowan - Sibling Rivalry

Publish Date
Thursday, 19 October 2017, 8:27AM
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By John Cowan

If you have more than one child, I bet you have yelled at your kids, “Be nice to each other!’ Has that phrase ever worked in the history of humankind? Have any children suddenly stopped and thought, “You’re right! I had forgotten to be nice to my brother. Thanks for the reminder, Mum.”

Siblings fight. Even though they seem to be fighting over who holds the TV remote, or who gets through a door first  or who can play with an old toy that someone found in the basement that no-one has been interested in for four years, very often they are really fighting over YOU. They want you to intervene in the situation and prove your love for them, preferably by annihilating their brother.  If your kids know you love them equally and have no favourites, you will take away a lot of the fuel for sibling rivalry. Life isn’t fair… but that doesn’t let us off the hook. We should seek to be as fair as we can.  A kitchen timer can be a wonderful independent referee for controlling turns on a game, trampoline or whatever.

I know no way you can force siblings to like each other. Affection is optional, but considerate, respectful, cooperative behaviour can be required. You don’t have to sort out every disagreement, but you can establish the ground rules: “No hitting, no insults. Stick to the issue.” You don’t always have to intervene. Reserve the option of separating the children for fifteen
minutes to half an hour if they are not able to solve their problem. Any two different rooms will do. They will soon discover it is better to discuss their differences than be separated

Most squabbles blow over, and it can even help them build resilience and interpersonal skills (though I have yet to meet an only child who says they felt deprived because they didn’t get to bicker and fight) but fairness love is the ultimate solution to sibling rivalry. 

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About John

John has been with The Parenting Place ( for seventeen years as their senior writer and presenter.  He had various roles working with youth and families prior to that but actually started his working life as a scientist in neurophysiology at Auckland Hospital.  As well as writing and speaking, John is frequently on radio and television.

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