Siblings without Rivalry

Sometimes people share the wrong thing at the wrong time. When I got pregnant with my second child only six months after having my first, people would immediately comment, “Wow they’ll be close in age. My sister and I were only 15 months apart and we never got along…” or “My brothers were close in age and they hated each other…” or “My second cousin’s kids were all 13 months apart and it was horrible. They fought all the time…”

It seemed like EVERYONE had some story of children less than two years apart who fought like cats and dogs and they felt the need to share it with me. But then they would always conclude their horror story with “But don’t worry, I am sure your kids will get along great.”

As much as I wanted to believe that my kids would be immune to hostility and animosity toward each other, it just didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t find anyone with a positive story about kids 15 months apart.  I was terrified that I had just created the next Cain and Abel (well in our case Caitlyn and Abel because my first is a girl).

Our second child came and honestly it didn’t seem that bad. In fact, my children really seemed to enjoy each other. I knew that as they got older it could get more complicated, but my fears of a constant family feud relaxed a little.

However…after six months I got pregnant again. And since number three has joined our family, there is just not enough Mom to go around. The peace and harmony that once prevailed in our home has been replaced with contention and competition. While both my older children love and adore the new baby, they now despise each other and compete with each other for mom’s attention. It can get ugly.

So in desperation, I googled sibling rivalry, in hopes of finding proven ways to bring back the love to our home. I came across the book Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and immediately checked it out. I am so glad I found it. It has changed the way I parent.

Siblings Without Rivalry

This New York Times Bestseller is based on the idea of helping your children learn good relationship skills so they will learn to not only get along with each other, but everyone they meet. I think most parents intend to teach their children this, but as I read through the book’s practical suggestions, I realized that I am not really good at it. In fact, my behavior contributed to the conflict instead of pacifying it.

Faber and Mazlish focus on five things parents can do to help their children build better relationships with each other.

1. Acknowledge Children’s Feelings

Children should be allowed to have their own feelings, and especially be allowed to be angry and annoyed with their siblings and permitted to vocalize it. Too often parents deny what their children are feeling with phrases like “You don’t really mean that” “Don’t say mean things” or “What a terrible thing to say.” Faber and Mazlish recommend acknowledging what your children feel by putting their feelings into words “You are frustrated with your brother. You hate it when he…” and then helping them understand that angry feelings can be discharged in other ways “Tell your sister how angry you are with words, not fists.” or “Why don’t you write a letter to your brother explaining how he hurt your feelings.”

This was a little eye-opening to me. I didn’t realize how much I discount what my children are feeling. Too often my attitude is “How dare you do that” or “Why on earth would you do such a thing…you know that isn’t nice ” instead of “What is going on to make you do that right now?” and “What is the real issue behind this behavior?” As I started to focus more on my children’s feelings rather than my own, I was amazed at how much easier it was to remain patient and understanding. I was also amazed at how much more they responded to me when I sincerely tried to see things from their perspective. Just trying to be more empathetic with my children has changed the tone in our house.

2. Never Compare

Don’t use comparisons to try and motivate your children to do things. Instead of saying things like “Why can’t you clear your plate after dinner like your brother” Faber and Mazlish recommend that you speak only about the behavior that displeases you. They suggest describe what you see, describe what you feel, or describe what needs to be done (“I see you didn’t clear your plate after dinner. That bothers me. Please go put your plate in the dishwasher.”) Don’t bring other siblings into it.

Since the new baby, my oldest often wants me to do things for her that she can do for herself. She wants me to spoon feed her meals and help her go to the bathroom even though she is capable of doing it on her own. Most of the time this irritates me to no end. I have found myself saying, “Your 16 month old brother can feed himself, why can’t you?”  I am trying to ditch the comparisons.

3. Love Uniquely

Faber and Mazlish point out that many parents obsess with trying to treat their children equally, but this often creates turmoil among siblings. No one wants to be loved equally, they want to be loved uniquely. No one is special if everyone is the same. So instead of worrying about giving equal amounts, focus on helping your children understand that you give each child what they individually need. Instead of claiming equal love for each of your children, show your children how they are loved uniquely.

I love this idea. It is easy to think you can only be fair if each child gets the same thing. However, being fair is really about giving each child what they need instead of giving every child the same thing.

4. Avoid Putting Kids into Roles

Too often parents assign children roles and then children feel they have to live up to it. It is just as easy to assign one child as the “problem child” as it is another child the “responsible one.” Faber and Mazlish suggest that you avoid putting your children into roles, positive or negative. Avoid phrases like “You always ______” or “You are ______ again.” Avoid language that suggests to children that they are a bully or a victim. Help children understand that they can change their behavior and usually can change their situation. This is empowering for them.

I was shocked at how I already place my kids into roles. I often introduce my kids as the first one being “My Spice” and the second “My Sugar.” I thought I was being clever in revealing that my oldest is a bit feisty while my younger son is calm and sweet. However, I realized that I could be locking them into these personality traits by continually suggesting these roles. I am completely revamping my introductions.

5. Intervene Helpfully When Kids Fight

When children fight Faber and Mazlish suggest getting your children to resolve as much as they can on their own. You don’t want your children to become dependent on you to resolve their conflicts. With general bickering, just learn to ignore it. When a situation starts escalating, step in and acknowledge their anger, recount each child’s point of view, describe the problem, express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution and leave them to it. If the situation looks dangerous (or could turn physical) describe what you see and separate the children. Children may not return to their activity until a solution is agreed upon, so both children need to compromise in order to get back to what they were doing.

I pretty much need to read this book every month so I can remember everything I learned. It is going to take a while to master everything this book teaches. But, as I have tried to put into practice just a few of the principles, I have noticed a difference in my children’s behavior and my own. I am calmer and more in control. I am happier and more sympathetic. There is a lot I still need to work on, but things are getting better. Read it. I promise is it is worth your time.


Update: I recently read the article The Important Thing About Yelling and I think it conveys some of the same ideas as this book. Especially the first principle discussed. 

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3 Responses to 5 Things Parents Can Do to Help Their Children Get Along

  1. Erin says:

    Awesome! Thanks for the summary (:

  2. Michelle Prince says:

    I’m convinced. I just put it on hold at the library. Thanks for the recommendation. I recently read “Love and Logic” – the version for ages birth to six, and it changed my life. No, really. Thanks for that recommendation too.

  3. Sarah says:

    This is uncharted territory for me, but as someone who grew up not getting along with my younger sister, I want to try to help things be more positive in my own family. Thank you for the suggestions!

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