Let’s say I’m a nine-year-old boy. My sister is six. I’m bigger, stronger, and feistier. Is it in my interest to accommodate? Or would I be inclined to solve conﬂicts in my favor? Is self-love stronger than sibling love? Can you imagine my nine-year-old self saying to my sister, “OK, Harmony, let’s try to work this out. Since I’m the big brother, I will sacriﬁce. You play with the Legos ﬁrst, all by yourself, for the next ﬁfteen minutes. See, isn’t that better? And Mom can enjoy her nap.” If by some quirk of nature, you have a child like this, I’d say let him solve all conﬂicts. In fact, I’d say let him raise himself—and his sister, too.
What sibling, little or big, is going to think like this? It’s not natural. Not for adults, and not for youth. (If it were natural, there wouldn’t be so many high-priced motivational speakers telling everybody how to construct win-win scenarios.) The experts call the everyday sibling bickering and clashes “sibling rivalry.” Rivalry connotes contention, an ongoing competition for attention, privilege, perks. It’s a supposed given of the relationship. How likely, then, for kids to peacefully work things out when percolating rivalry lurks beneath? A more ﬁtting description would be sibling quibbling or sibling squabbling.
Consider the facts. Two or more partially socialized, partially moralized beings living in close proximity for years are asked to get along. With mutual immaturity, each jostles for the upper hand—sometimes cooperatively, sometimes not. As the oldest of four children, I’d have been thrilled had my mom and dad allowed us to solve our own clashes. In the sibling rankings, I saw myself on top; therefore, I should set the agenda. Given that, I never could quite ﬁgure out how my sisters so regularly outmaneuvered me. Only years later did I realize that older doesn’t necessarily mean smarter.
In smooth-running families, mutual respect is the oil. Each person is expected to treat every other person well. It won’t always happen, but it’s an ideal. Would it be wise to put fraternal correction in juvenile hands? Would it be wise to let one child set the other’s curfew? Bedtime? Allowance? No parent would permit this. It’s the same with respect. In the main, children are not well-suited to guide other children to respectful engagement. Sibling quibbling is a high-frequency misbehavior. It can erupt hourly.
Understandably, we are tempted to stand back, hoping the pugilists call a truce, however uneasy. Battle fatigue can tempt us to take on an observer role. Our ten children were all under our roof for several years. I never ran the numbers, but all the possible combinations of feuding parties had to run into the billions.
My wife and I were sometimes slow to intervene. Not because we harbored any illusions about their making peace on their own. Mostly it was because of our own ignorance: We didn’t know who started it, who prolonged it, who was lying, and whose crying was faked. We toyed with installing a whole-house, eye-in-the-sky camera so we could review the tapes for real-time input, until we realized we already had one—an eight-year-old daughter. “Dad, I have some information you might be interested in. It concerns a boy whose name begins with J, and how he tripped a girl whose name begins with E. Aren’t you glad I’m here to help?”
Experts contend that letting siblings forge a consensus helps them hone conﬂict-resolution skills. The conﬂict itself provides a venue for maturing, compelling each to be negotiable. The idea has appeal—in books. Flesh-and-blood kids don’t always read experts’ books. For one, the dominant child—again, not synonymous with oldest—is not about to willingly surrender his “rights” while he masters negotiating skills. That may be what grown-ups want for him, but it’s not what he wants. For another, most conﬂicts are not resolved equally. There is a victor and a vanquished. Even should kids ultimately call a truce, what could happen along the way? How much volume and ill-temper? How many names called?
The sibling bond is durable and can absorb a lot of pounding. But that doesn’t mean the pounding is good for it. Some parents referee when the fracas moves toward the physical. Some, when it reaches a certain pitch. Some, when the chaos forces them to come out of the bathroom. And some, when there is crying—by a child or a parent.
Siblings are better able to solve it themselves if the parent sets the terms of engagement. Resolution can be pursued within certain parameters—no hitting or pushing, no put-downs, no jumping off the ropes. Though the kids could see such limits as stiﬂing their creativity. Whenever and however you decide to involve yourself, here are some tips for honing your own conﬂict resolution skills:
1) When faced with a he said-she said, don’t try to ferret out who did what to whom, when, where, and how much. Loud stereophonic discord can damage your eardrums.
2) Sometimes you may have to make an educated guess as to who created more conﬂict than resolution. Indeed, much of parenting is educated guesses. Consequences are distributed according to your estimate of responsibility.
3) Don’t expect to hear agreement with your solution. The f-word (“fair”) will be ﬂung at you from all parties. At least you’ve got them cooperating on that. Your goal is not to be perceived as fair, but to effect a settlement, or at least a cease-ﬁre. Teaching kindness and respect is not a brother’s or sister’s role. While they may learn some from each other, the main socializer of a child is a parent, not another child. You are far better at being a parent than they are, despite what they think.