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Cover of "Siblings Without Rivalry: How t...

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It’s fitting that I’ve been asked to write a post on squabbling sibs.  That’s how this whole thing started, after all – my children were fighting with each other, so I turned to my personal heroes, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and pulled out their book, Siblings Without Rivalry, and made a cocky joke to a group of friends that soon put me in my humble place.  And now, forced to put my money where my mouth is, I have to write on the very subject I turned to help for in the first place.  Ha, Universe.  Ha, ha!

I think that’s an important thing for parents to know, though.  No one else, not even the parenting gurus who give all the answers (you know, like me… evidently), actually has all the answers.  But you, knowing your family the way you do, ultimately, you do.  Sometimes you just need help finding them.

And with sibling rivalry, sometimes you really need help.  Because the sound of your precious little angel’s voice shrieking, “Mooooooom, he’s TOUCHING me again!” can do unspeakable things to your mental and spiritual well-being.  And in the thick of things, objectivity is a lovely goal to have, but a heck of a lot easier said than done.

There are so many things I could write about sibling rivalry.  Alas, this small treatise is already becoming TL;DR (that’s “Too Long; Didn’t Read), and as parents, we’re probably not granted more than 5 minutes alone on the computer before being called off to tend to our little ones.

So what to write?  A reader commented that her two boys squabble constantly, and sometimes violently.  Her support system tells her, “It’s ok – they’re boys!  That’s how they play, they need to find out who’s in charge!”  I got to thinking about how my two younger brothers played and fought, and how I played and fought with them… and I realized, that is just the thing I want to write about:  sibling rivalry with regard to gender.

hate the “boys will be boys” mentality towards play and fighting.  Especially when it comes to, “They have to figure out who’s in charge!”  Like they’re wolf cubs in the wild.

Really, people?  Is this how we want to raise our boys?  By teaching them that they have to constantly vie for “Top Dog” status?  Really?  And what kind of message does that send?  The older one won this time, but the younger one doesn’t want to settle for being “beta dog” (this analogy is just making me madder and madder.  I’m going to have to stop.), so he challenges his big brother again, out of feelings of inferiority and resentment.  Or the younger one won this time, so big brother not only feels those same feelings, but also a sense of not measuring up, because as the older one, isn’t he “supposed” to be on top all the time?

Do we really want to teach our children that life is a competition?  I will not even get into the sociological ramifications of such a mentality.  Just think about how happy people are who view life as a competition – how truly joyous they are to be alive.  Think about it.

And then the girls – I’ll be honest.  I fought hard with my brothers – especially the older of the two.  I was vicious.  Beyond catty – oh hey, look at that, there’s that animal analogy being thrown out there again.  Boys are “Top Dog” and girls are “catty.”

But girls who fight with their siblings aren’t said to be competing for any sort of status, they’re said to be “catty.”  Or maybe they’re overly emotional.  But there’s no rhyme or reason given to their actions.  Just shocked reactions.

I’ve heard this is because girls are more socially inclined than boys, and when they fight, they’re better at using their words.  They’ll cut you with their tongue faster than you can cry, “Mercy!” and you’ll never see it coming. Or so it goes.

But is that true?  It sure wasn’t for me, not until I was older.  I’m good with words, sure – when they’re on paper (or electronic media).  I am not an eloquent speaker.  I can only think of two times as a child where I was actually able to use my words as effective weapons, and I was a teenager in both instances; I was standing up for someone else, and felt very strongly.  Very strongly.  In those situations, physical actions would have accomplished nothing.  But at home, in the day-to-day with my brothers, my words failed miserably.  So I took advantage of my size and age and scared the poo out of them when I felt I needed to.

My parents were smart.  They only intervened if someone’s well-being was truly endangered.  Body or mind – they watched from a distance, but like hawks, to make sure we didn’t take it too far.  I can remember one time in particular, being shocked at my dad’s sudden arrival out of nowhere, his calm demeanor separating me from my brother and judging no one, and the incredible guilt followed by relief that he was there.  “I could have killed him,” I thought.  I hope, if my children ever fight the way my brother and I were that day, I am as graceful as my father was.

I was never brought up to think that I couldn’t fight like the boys.  In fact, I was taught certain skills for self-defense.  The only remotely gender-biased message I ever received about boys and fighting was the statement, “Boys don’t talk much.  When they pick on you and start fights with you, they’re secretly saying ‘I love you.'”

And you know what?  I think, particularly for the older of my younger brothers, that really was (and is) true.  And I think it’s true for a lot of boys, maybe even the majority.  The more physical they are, the more they’re trying to communicate, whereas girls are maybe more likely to spit it out: “I love you.  Quit being a jerk.”

I don’t think only boys fight to convey affection, though.  And I don’t think girls are the only ones to communicate in words how they feel.  And that the two are mutually exclusive.  This lines up with my feelings on gender in the first place – I don’t believe in the gender binary (boy vs girl); I believe gender is much more fluid.  I once read (and I so wish I could cite the source, it was a fantastic book!) there are three factors that influence gender expression, and accordingly, several ways to express it, where the result could be that a child would end up identifying male, presenting female, and biologically female, or any other variation on the theme.

But before I digress any further, let’s bring it back to point: while I do believe gender expression or identity does factor into how a child interacts with his or her siblings, I’m not totally sure if this is a biological or psychological construct, or if it’s a result of socialization.  I have much more reading to do, and first-hand knowledge to gain!

Regardless of a child’s gender, is it ever ok for them to work out their differences with physical fighting?  That’s really up to you as the parent, your children’s personalities and needs, your family’s values, and what you can personally take.

Some children need rough interaction.  They need to roughhouse – it releases tension, and they get along better.  Others have a large personal bubble and need to shout it out.  When you have one (or more) of each, the fireworks really start.  As parents, we have the added pleasure of figuring out how to help each child meet their own personal needs to resolve their conflicts appropriately.  In my house, my son goes to his room to center himself while playing basketball, punching his bag, or playing his guitar.  My daughter, on the other hand, needs to be out in the middle of everything and yell and cry it out, so I often find myself sitting outdoors with her while she unloads.  When they’re ready, they come back together and talk it out on their own, frequently surprising me with their results.

But it’s not always perfect like that.  Remember?  I had to pick up a book just recently on this very subject!  More often than not, their squabbles are minor enough not to call for my intervention, but frequent or loud enough to really annoy me.  That’s the funny thing, though … because it’s not about me.  It’s about them – they’re learning to communicate, respect boundaries, enforce boundaries.  Why should I get in the way of their learning?

Lately I’ve been trying a trick.  If I can’t walk away and let them resolve it on their own (within earshot, of course), I state the obvious.  “My kids are fighting over the TV when there are two TV’s in the house and several hours before bedtime, and plenty of activities to do.”  Or, if it’s gone beyond that, “I hear one person asking nicely and trying to negotiate terms, and I hear another person shouting and saying ‘No!’ to everything.  I’m starting to get a headache.”

It’s strange, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought it would, but it works more often than it doesn’t.  It works best in the car.  No one wants Mom to get a headache in the car, she’s already a questionable driver in the first place.

I don’t believe in siblings without fights.  Siblings without competition? Well, if we buy Freud’s explanation, kids are competing for their mother’s love (or father’s), and that’s supposed to be some sort of evolutionary concept to further a child’s chances of survival.  I call horse-hockey.  I think fighting is another way of learning what is acceptable socially.  Sibling spats (and all-out brawls) are great practice for learning how to deal with conflict in the real world.

If we begin to consider sibling rivalry as social learning experiments, without regard to gender, we teach our children the necessary skills for communication, as well as enforcement and respect of personal boundaries. We set our children up for but a healthier, safer life.  Because children who learn from the start that a sibling’s “NO!” means it’s time to stop, are more likely to grow into adults who understand that other people’s bodies are not their own.  Children who understand that their boundaries are respected from the start, will be likely to be more confident, and less at-risk for abuse and harm later in their lives.  Furthermore, children who are taught these lessons will grow into adults with powerful tools to navigate this tough world we all live in.

There.  Now, I’ve done it.  I’ve made it TL;DR.  Sorry, parents!  I’m still learning the art of brevity.

Good luck, Mamas & Papas! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.