When my second son was born, one of the things I knew I wanted to "head off at the pass" was the issue of sibling rivalry. I have a sister only 18 months older than I am, and our relationship as children wasn't characterized by understanding or trust. We argued and competed for attention most of the time. Now that we are adults, we get along much better, but it has taken time to travel that path. Even if that amount of conflict is "normal", I wanted my boys to be able to avoid it as much as possible.
I remember asking my pediatrician about it at my second son's two week checkup. He raised his eyebrows. "It's a little early for that, isn't it?" he joked. I explained that I wanted to raise my boys to be brothers and friends. He saw my point of view and recommended that I read Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I bought it and read it, cover to cover. In fact, I have kept it and continue to refer to it as the children get older. It is a great book that every parent with more than one child should absolutely read.
Siblings without Rivalry is a collection of stories from parents who have specifically sought help because their children are fighting. Some of the stories involve persistent picking and bickering. Others are about belittling language or physical confrontation. The parents whose stories are contained in the book agreed to try a novel approach to the issue of their kids' constant state of confrontation.
Whenever possible, let the kids solve their disputes themselves.
When I first read it, it sounded crazy. I mean, really crazy. But, believe it or not, it has worked pretty well for our family. The key is to know and understand your children's cues so that you can step in only when necessary. But, you have to build and be willing to rely on your children's problem solving skills as well. The goal is to lead them to build a healthy relationship with one another without setting yourself up a the supreme arbiter of right and wrong. I'll explain:
Yesterday Primo was setting up some complicated paths of Dominoes to knock down and my youngest repeatedly knocked them down before he was ready. He would overreact, and she would be delighted at the attention. His freakout was her payoff. She smiled and clapped every time he would get angry. After it happened about three times, I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was about to snap. I pulled him aside.
"You know, when you were little, Daddy and I had such a hard time playing cards. Did you know that?" He shook his head, glaring at me like he could care less (and why aren't you punishing her for annoying me?)
I continued, "You used to always try to steal the cards."
He was intrigued, for the moment. "I did?"
"What did you do about it?" [gotcha, I thought.]
"Well, we tried and tried just to tell you not to, but you paid no attention. So, we gave you some cards of your own to play next to us on the same table. I guess you just wanted to play what we were playing."
He rolled his eyes and sighed. "Does that mean I have to give her all my Dominoes?!?" (Oh, the injustice of it all!)
"Nope. About 5 should do it."
"Fine." Scowl, stomp, stomp, stomp.
He continued to be extremely annoyed at the injustice of the situation -- why did he have to give away some of his own toys when his sister was the one who was being annoying?!? But over the course of the next 15 minutes, I saw him slowly realize that she was, in fact, leaving him alone. She set up her own Dominoes and systematically knocked them down. "Good job!" I heard him say to her finally.
Pretending not to pay attention, I returned to folding my laundry with a smile on my face. Mission accomplished.
Of course, it doesn't always work that way, especially with the two oldest. Sometimes I have to listen to both sides of a complicated tale of woe. In the end, I put them together and say, "Okay. I'm going to give you two ten minutes to find a solution that's fair for both of you." At this point, they know they are going to have to compromise to get what they want. (It's a lesson many adults haven't mastered yet, believe me!) I give them space to find an answer that works. At the end of the ten minutes, I explain, I will step in and make the choice. They know that there is no guarantee they will like my decision, but that they will be stuck with it. 95% of the time, they will come to an agreement they both can live with -- and it rarely takes the full ten minutes.
If you have children who are fighting, setting ground rules (such as no yelling, no name-calling, or no hitting) is important to do before letting them solve things themselves. Once those rules are in place, trusting your children to solve some of their disagreements may be a great way to change from being Mom the referee into Mom the helper and teacher.
I can't say that I follow every suggestion I read in the book. But, I will say that it has informed my parenting and re-reading it helps to keep me on track when I fall into the "referee-Mom" trap.
When I look at my children and how they interact, I see friends who occasionally disagree, not rivals who are sometimes friendly. I can live with that; it seems healthy and good. And I know that this way of solving problems gives my children tools for those times when I'm not around to say what is right or wrong.
Isn't that part of what good parenting is all about?