Book Thoughts: Siblings Without Rivalry

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sibling relationships – how to cultivate good relationships among all 4 of my children. There has been a lot of discussion about sibling relationships within the China adoption community lately (I wrote this guest post last month for a popular China adoption blog), and, more personally, Matt and I have been working on addressing some concerns we have about ways we’ve seen our kids interacting with each other . We have a lot of different dynamics going on in our family that complicate our kids’ sibling relationships – we have both biological and adopted children; we’ve virtual twinned and adopted out of birth order; and we have 4 kids with the age difference between our oldest and youngest being only 4.5 years. We have girls and boys; introverts and extroverts; sensory seekers and sensory avoiders.

As a researcher, my instinct whenever I encounter a situation in which I’m not certain how to proceed, is to find a book 🙂 The book Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish came well recommended, and I’d appreciated another book they’d written, so I dived into this one last month.

I found it often helpful but also sometimes not incredibly practical, at least for my crew.

The book begins with encouragement to understand our children’s perspectives. They are individuals with individual preferences, and they may not always get along perfectly or appreciate one another, and we as parents need to understand that and give them good, healthy ways to express their feelings honestly.

It then discusses the dangers of comparisons, which, to me, tied in closely with their discussion of placing children into roles. Making comparisons includes things that are, to me, obviously problematic, like making a statement to a child like, “Your sister always gets her math homework right; why can’t you?!?” But it also includes interactions that have a bit more subtlety – any discussion a child’s accomplishments relative to those of another child; labeling children as “the athletic one” and “the funny one;” and only allowing children to pursue interests at which they are the best in the family. This section forced me to ask myself some questions, in particular about the strategies I use to parent my oldest two children, who are less than a year apart in age and spend much of their time together but who are also very different.

I was reminded of that this week when a Facebook memory popped up from two years ago:

Madeleine CaiQun – “Mom, if me and JieJie want to be flower girls in Uncle Daniel’s and Sharon’s wedding, we’ll have to practice – it’s a big job for 5-year-old girls!!”
Miranda Grace – “I have practiced enough. I even knew how to do it before I practiced. Watch me.”

It’s easy to box them in, to make assumptions about who they are and who they will be, and not give them space to explore beyond that. It’s a tough line to walk – encouraging each of them in who they are but not pigeonholing them or restricting them. I want them to be free to explore and become exactly who God created them to be, and their relationship with each other is going to be part of that, but I hope it will be an empowering part, as opposed to a limiting part.

Relatedly, there was discussion about treating children uniquely, not equally. We need to give each child what he or she needs, which is not necessarily the same thing that a brother or sister needs. The book encouraged parents to treat our children as we hope they will become and empower them to become that.

The last section of the book focused on conflict. I found a large portion of the conversation helpful, but I also disagreed with parts of it. The authors’ suggestions for helping your children in working through conflict are, essentially, to acknowledge that the situation is complicated and acknowledge your children’s feelings but then to assure them that you are certain they can come to an agreement that works for everyone and leave and allow them to work it out on their own.

Sometimes that works well. I followed their directions almost exactly one morning when we were in Wisconsin and my two big girls were fighting over some toys, and the result was that they worked it out on their own and enjoyed hours of happy play time together.

However, the fact is that our children are often doing as well as they can in the moment. Sometimes a brief interlude in a fight with a sibling, taking time to tell the story to a parent and have their feelings acknowledged, is enough to help them come out of a state of dysregulation, and they can then focus more and work through the conflict themselves – but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes children are children, they’re young, their brains are not fully developed, and they simply do not have the skills to resolve a conflict on their own.

At our house we practice scripts. Probably the earliest one was this –

  • “May I have a turn with that toy when you’re done?”
  • “Yes, you may have a turn when I’m done.”

Do I expect my 7-year-olds to say exactly that to each other every single time one of them wants a toy that the other one has? No. But practicing that script in different situations when they were 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 gave them a framework to understand the dialogue that can occur. It helped them to learn that they were not allowed to take toys from one another but that there was an expectation of sharing. It also helped them to practice working out conflict with each other.

If kids are calm and if they truly have the skills to work through the conflict themselves, I think the book’s recommendations can work – but I don’t think those conditions are always met (and this may be true in particular for kids who have experienced trauma).

In general, I found the book helpful. Though I didn’t agree with every single one of its recommendations, it challenged me to reconsider the ways in which I think about and interact with my kids, and it gave me some new strategies to put into practice. For me it was a worthwhile read!

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