Sibling Dramas

Fostering happy relationships for a lifetime.

If siblings are close in age, they share a number of similar abilities and interests. Many are congenial co-stars and create a delightful family play. But many sibling peers seem determined to ruin the show. They ad-lib lines that create conflict and engender ill-will. Some carry their childhood grudges into adult life, turning the family story into a tragedy.

In hopes of achieving a better play and a happily-ever-after ending, some parents put years between their children. Many older children instantly take the baby into their heart, some act as though their understudy is out to steal the show. Elementary school children commonly say they would rather be an only child. Middle-schoolers antagonize, criticize and manipulate siblings half their age. Even teens are jealous of toddlers. “Mom and Dad think everything my little sister does is cute. It’s disgusting,” one adolescent complains.

In the United States, sibling rivalry is so widespread that most people seem to believe it is innate. Most childrearing books urge parents to accept it as normal. But outside of a handful of Western countries, sibling strife is extremely rare. Whether siblings are born two, five, ten or 15 years apart, they are best friends and helpmates during childhood, committed companions as adults and primary caregivers during old age. Sibling rivalry is rare, and an occasional adult sibling rift is considered a terrible tragedy.

Parents in other cultures have a handy technique for eliminating sibling competition: they don’t treat siblings like peers. Instead, parents assign children special roles according to their position in the family. Older siblings are responsible for ensuring the well-being of younger ones; younger siblings are taught to defer to older brothers and sisters. Having such a powerful position boosts older children’s self-esteem. If a little one appeals an older sibling’s decision, the parents are careful not to undermine the older child’s authority. To that end, they may tell the older child, “It’s okay to let your little brother do that.” Then the older sibling gives the little one permission. Or, a parent may say, “Explain why you don’t want your little brother to do that.” By carefully coaching each child, parents teach siblings how to play their parts.

Regardless of the children’s ages, parents in other cultures actively engage older siblings in helping to care for younger ones. As older children and mothers jointly care for “their” baby, the older children get lots of positive attention. As older ones learn how to hug, kiss, pat, feed, carry and change a little one— they learn how to get along.

One-on-one time, so cherished by U.S. parents, isn’t considered important. If the 5 year old wants to sit on mother’s lap as she feeds the baby, mother makes room for both. Parents don’t choose one child over another.

Whatever child-rearing strategies you use, the secret to sunny sibling relationships is a strong sibling bond. Find ways to nurture it from day one, and your children are bound to cherish the other young members of your family cast— not just today, but for a lifetime.