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Denyse Variano helps parents bring home this information. She's an RN and the family and consumer sciences issue leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County, which offers a seasonal menu of affordable parenting workshops to teachers, child-care providers, parents, and grandparents. The CCEs in Dutchess and Greene Counties offer something similar. "Parenting is the hardest job anyone will do, with the least amount of formal training," Variano says. Whether it's on raising healthy teens or discipline, sibling rivalry comes up in every course.
The overall message of the classes is that adults set the tone for the home environment. With multiple children, it's the little things we do that encourage sibling bonds or sibling rivalry. "No matter how many children you have, they all want all of your attention all of the time!" Variano laughs. So it's important to give them positive attention, noticing when they're playing together nicely. Racing against the clock to pick up toys rather than counting how many each child collects bolsters cooperation rather than competition. Blaming an older child during an argument "because they should know better" or placing unrewarded responsibility on the elder to care for the younger can foster poor relationships. Variano says kids might not be capable of working it out, so arguments are an opportunity to help them reflect on solutions and their choices. "It's just like teaching them to tell time," Variano says. "It takes time up front, but once they learn it, they have that skill forever."
Except for those situations where conflict is at an extreme and families need outside help, sibling competition is a normal, healthy part of growing up. Kids practice various aspects of human relations through their negotiations with their siblings. But when rivalry is carried into adulthood, it can be detrimental to families. Local author Amy Bronwen Zemser writes about a Memorial Day fight with her younger sister that was so epic, they came to blows. Hearing that, you'd never guess that they were in their 30s at the time. "Sometimes I wonder if it's sad for my parents to have two children who are so different, who argue frequently and don't have much of a relationship," she tells me. "It would upset me deeply if my children weren't friends into adulthood, if they couldn't enjoy or rely on one another. I try to think of strategies to preserve their close relationship, but I'm not certain if my parenting style can account for essential character differences."
Variano suggests parents set clear expectations for people's treatment in the house. Of course, setting the limit on physical violence, particularly if one child persists in being the victim, is important. But also understanding that teasing is a form of sibling rivalry, and it's most damaging when a parent joins in. "We have to be equally astute, as adults, about the emotional as well as the physical."
Parents work hard to show love to all their children, but there's almost always a perception of favoritism among siblings. A parent's own birth order and temperament may influence their compassion for certain of the children. In a way, identification equals favoritism. "A child with a sunny disposition, an easy child compared to a petulant one, or at certain times different children might feel more like you," Variano says. "If you have a strong feeling that you favor a child, you can never let them know, and you've got to make up for that. That's the adult work. And with some children, you have to look hard and long, but there's always something to appreciate."
When sibling rivalry rears its ugly head, it's usually about children seeking affirmation. Siblings innately define and differentiate themselves in relation to each other in order to find their niche in the family. Similarly, as the kids come along, they're born to parents who learn from their experience. "You don't have to give your children the message that you love them exactly the same," Variano says. "You can give them a sense of why each one is loved and how that makes them special in your eyes." Studies show that praise that is specific is best and comparison is most damaging. Parents can accept that we do love different people differently, and respond to the distinction that children want.