I live with the Bickersons. My three children argue about everything. It has gone on for years. I have talked to friends who tell me “it’s normal, all kids bicker.” Is it true? Do all kids bicker? My kids drive me nuts. And, even worse, I worry that when they grow up they will not like each other.

 

People that live under the same roof tend to bicker, sorry it’s a species specific behavior. When it comes to our children we call it sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry is the “normal” arguing, bickering, tattling, teasing and moderate hostility siblings express towards each other. Usually, it is a developmental stage children experience as they practice growing up. When your children are two - three years of age they tend to push, hit, bite and scream their displeasure. When they are five - seven sibling feuds become name calling, tattling, and silly teasing. By age eight your children become skilled at hateful teasing, angry hostility, and spiteful competition. On the surface this sounds horrifying, but it need not be. If this acting out behavior is dealt with correctly by parents and teachers it is merely a mild annoyance.

Many parents want to know why their children seem to have the need to bicker all the time. The simple answer is competition. Children need lots of things from the very powerful people they call mom and dad. Anything that distracts mom and dad from taking care of them is a potential conflict for your children. The test of all relationships is conflict. To this end, if mom is taking sister to skating, mom is not taking care of me. It is only a small skip in thought for brother to growl, “You’re always taking Sally places, you don’t do stuff for me.” When mom mistakenly gets caught up in the argument: “Bobby, I do lots for you,” she feeds the emotional fire. In this situation it is necessary to read between the words and help Bobby experience and understand his feelings. The same situation:

 

Bobby: You’re always taking Sally places, you don’t do stuff for me.

Mom: You’re not happy that I’m taking Sally to skating?

Bobby: No. I don’t care about dumb skating! (Note the skillful dig at Sally’s beloved skating.) I just want to... ah... you know.

Mom: I’m not sure, what do you want me to do?

Bobby: I want you to do stuff with me.

Mom: Me too. I want to do stuff with you. Do you want to ride with me to skating?, We can visit on the way.

 

This active listening on the part of mom will, over time, teach Bobby to keep perspective and to plan his needs. Most people need about thirty years of practice before this is a skill they have mastered. (I see your questioning look. We all know forty-five year olds that are selfish toad lickers, but most people tend to master this skill by thirty.)

For most families I work with I advocate the following Must Rule:

For parents of younger children:

Must Rule: Be nice to self and others

Consequence: Short Time Out to get your feelings in check. Followed by a discussion.

For parents of teenagers:

Must Rule: Be nice to self and others

Consequence: Teen is excused from the room until they feel that they can discuss their concerns in an appropriate manner. Followed by a discussion.

 

For me, be nice to self and others is the proverbial “Golden Rule.” (One should behave toward others as one would have others behave toward oneself.) I expect people I am around to treat others kindly. I expect it out of myself as well as my family and friends. I point out to my children that this is one of the major factors in how I pick friends.

What can a parent do to limit sibling rivalry?

Must Rule

Implement a Must Rule that allows your child a moment to think through the conflict. Avoid harsh punishment as this leads to acts of revenge. Allow your child a safe place to work out choices. Ask, “How can you do it differently?”

Respect the individual

Keep in mind that your children are individuals. Don’t try to make everything equal. Strive to make your children’s lives personal. For example, if you return from a trip with a gift for each child, make the gift personal to your relationship with each individual child. Fret little about the dollar amount, focus on the person you are giving to.

Respect privacy

If at all possible, give each child their own private place. Then, let them do with their private space as much as you can. Allow their private place to be their creative place. Respect your child’s individuality as it is shown in their private space.

If children live in a cramped situation, it should be expected that they will get on each other’s nerves.

Share yourself as an individual with an individual

Plan time with each of your children. Do things with each member of the family. It is wonderful to take the kids to the park, but make some time to take just one child at a time to the park. Let your children invite you to do something with them as an individual. If one child likes chess, play chess. If the other likes checkers, play checkers. It is counterproductive to force the chess player to play checkers just so he can spend time with you.

The parental double check

Check to make sure you are treating each child fairly as well as treating them as individuals. Over the years I have heard horror stories that just break my heart. Without belaboring the point, if you’re bringing a gift for one child, bring for all. It is better to bring just yourself than fuel sibling rivalry by slighting the other child. This is especially a problem in blended and step-families.

Teach property rights early

It is important that parents teach children that their property is theirs and that other people’s property is not theirs. Children need to be taught early to ask for permission before touching another’s property. This teaching is done in word and action. I advocate that parents ask for permission before they touch their child’s belongings. This is an amazing teaching tool, as well as polite. If I say to my son, “Ethy, can Josh and I use your giant tub of Legos?” He usually gives his permission with a powerful lift to his self esteem. Once he did pull rank with a smile, “You can dad, but put them away when you’re done. I don’t want to get them Ching Chinged.”

Do not force sharing

Your child’s property is theirs. Teach the virtue of sharing, but do not force it upon your child.

For example. If your child has just gotten a new, must-have-toy, let him enjoy the newness. Many parents question me on this. But, would you like to share your brand new, over priced car with the neighbor, just because he wants his turn really badly?