Raising Children of Peace

Edited by Farley and Betsy Jones

Chapter 2 Parents and Children

The Roots of Sibling Rivalry
Marilyn Cohen

After an exhausting day at work, consumed by the craving for peace and quiet, we reach our door only to be greeted by fighting, yelling, and accusations among our children. Just what we've been waiting for all day! We live with it for years. Can the squabbling be diminished? Can we hope for serenity? Yes, but we first need to know what causes such tension between siblings. Getting to the root of sibling rivalry is the first step.

All humans have a primal urge to give and receive love. This urge comes from God in whom the desire originates. In his book, Sibling Rivalry, Seymour Reit says that among children the deepest need, the greatest hunger, is to receive love from the adult or adults on whom they depend for their very existence. Because of this dependence, young siblings sometimes fear that love given by parents to others will mean love withheld from themselves. 1

A great deal of competition between children is simply competition for parental love and approval. This may be disguised and covered up, but it remains the underlying motive. To a child, a parent's love is vital because it spells safety, security, and support. And since mother and father hold the real power within the family, their love is a kind of unwritten guarantee of protection. 2

Sibling rivalry is a fact of life. It was not the result of man's separation from God. Cain and Abel both wanted approval, recognition and praise from God and their parents. They were competing with their offerings. This desire for attention and approval was not evil. Cain's feeling of rejection ultimately led him to murder his brother. Evil prevailed when he chose to wrongly act on his resentful and jealous feelings. But these feelings can be resolved, as demonstrated with Esau and Jacob. Jacob was able to win his brother's heart on his return to Harare. It is not wrong for our children to vie for our attention and love. It is a natural desire, instilled by God! The real challenge for a parent is not to try to eliminate rivalry, but to keep it within healthy and constructive bounds. 3

Dr. T Berry Brazelton sums it all up:

Sibling rivalry can be a major spur in children's learning to live together, learning how to share, how to win victories and suffer defeats, how to love and how to cope with their own unloving feelings. 4

He further points out that children need to learn these lessons in childhood, and that failure to do so may make it far more difficult, and emotionally costly, to learn them later as adults.

How to Decrease Sibling Rivalry

The key to decreasing sibling rivalry lies in making each child feel valuable, important, and cherished. Finding special time to spend individually with each and every child every week and every day if possible is critical. A child needs to know he is worthy to monopolize some of your time without sibling competition.

According to the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program:

People are decision-making social beings whose main goal in life is to belong. Each of us strives continually to find and maintain a place of significance. Choosing how you belong is a powerful motivation! 5

Each child is born into a different family -- even children with the same parents! The first child has a monopoly on the parents' love for some time. The second child is always confronted with someone who is older and ahead. The youngest will always be the baby. Each position is totally different and influences that child's behavior. Each child must find his own special place of significance in the family. They must compete for their parents' love and attention. Insecurity can result when a child has not felt loved and valued unconditionally. Most sibling rivalry is an attempt to boost the child's position in the family.

Tattling, for example, places the tattletale in a superior position. He is trying to make himself look good in the parents' eyes, and make the sibling look bad. Therefore, it is better to ignore tattling in most cases. When one of my children was being punished, the other would come up to me and ask in a very angelic voice if he could help me with anything (implying, "look how good I am and look how bad he is!")

Decreasing Competition

There is plenty of competition in school, in sports, and elsewhere. Try to decrease the competition at home. Value each child as a unique individual. If children find losing particularly hard, it helps to prepare them by saying something like: "If you play checkers, are you willing either to win or to lose? If so, then you may play with your brother:"

Refrain from comparing your children, especially in front of them. For example, we have asked our children not to compare report cards. Their grades are between each of them and us. If they take music lessons, have them study from different books or better yet, different instruments.

Do not praise a child excessively or unrealistically, putting him on a pedestal. If the other children hear this constantly, this can cause them to be resentful. It can also cause the recipient of praise to feel value only when praise is forthcoming.

If one child is way ahead in math, for example, the second child may choose to quit trying altogether in math because he can never hope to live up to his brother. Therefore, try not to lavish praise in front of the other children. Encourage older siblings to mentor younger ones. This builds bonds between them.

Stop the Criticism between Siblings

Do not allow one sibling to put down or constantly criticize the other. It can have a detrimental effect on both for life. It can breed long-held resentment and bitterness and cause a child's self-esteem to plummet.

A child who is taught always to ignore and walk away from someone verbally abusing him will likely harbor deep feelings of hostility and resentment, if he never speaks up. Children should be taught to assert their feelings verbally without accusation. If one sibling is in the destructive habit of criticizing another, or making him look bad, teach the child who is being put down to seriously express his feelings. Factual statements can be effective. Clear and strong statements such as:

"Stop putting me down. You've got a problem."
"I'm not going to listen to you put me down."
"You're hurting my feelings and I'm not going to listen to it."
"I know you're doing this to me to make yourself look good"

Even if the critical sibling will not stop, the simple act of clearly expressing his feelings and exposing the bully will enable the hurt child to discharge his resentment.


You can try to be fair but realistically this is not always possible. When my children were five and six I had an important realization over breakfast. Isaac said, "Mommy, does Hobie have more Rice Krispies than me?" It occurred to me to answer, "Why don't you count them?" They looked at me like I was crazy, and basically told me so. It was then that I had the minor revelation that most situations could not possibly be perfectly fair and I shouldn't try to go to great pains to make them so. I explained that of course one of them had a few more Rice Krispies than the other, but that it would change next time. They had no trouble accepting this, since the alternative of counting them all was ludicrous. Children must realize that though things should be fair in the long run, in the short run they cannot always be so.


Reit says:

The origins of sibling squabbles are vague and complex. Did the older child precipitate the fight? Perhaps so. On the other hand, younger siblings do learn how to manipulate, how to goad and provoke older brothers and sisters in various ways. So unless the guilt is clear and blatant, the best course for you is to remain objective and refuse to take sides. Experience shows that the most effective approach is simply to separate the fighters and say as firmly as possible, "It doesn't matter who started it. The rule in this family is no hitting." 6


Sharing is to be encouraged up to a point, but should not be forced. Children who are secure about what belongs to them, and who do not feel they have to guard their things from the others, will desire freely to give and to share what is theirs when they are ready. They should have their own place for their things and their own private space. Parents should prevent other siblings from invading a child's private time or private space. This promotes responsibility and respect among the children. Children should be allowed to keep some prized possessions stored in a special place. A sense of ownership helps a child to gain dominion over his things and to feel he has a special place in the family.

When a New Baby Comes

One of the most important things you can do is to listen and reflect the underlying feelings your child has. Suppose a child says to his new baby sister, "I hate you:" What he may really be saying is, "I am afraid I am being replaced and will not receive as much love as I used to from Mommy and Daddy." This child needs reassurance. I suggest that before the baby is born a parent could say, "We love you so much, and think you are such a wonderful child, that we have decided to have another child just like you!"

Suppose a child says, "I don't want this baby:" You could say, "Sometimes boys and girls do feel like that. I know. That's okay. But Mommy and Daddy will still play with you and read to you and take good care of you and love you." 7

In conclusion, to lessen the degree to which children feel they need to compete for your love, try to individually value and spend time with each child. Ask each child for suggestions, and listen to their ideas, for this helps reassure them of their value and importance. Take them very seriously -- their views, their work, their play-and give each the respect he or she deserves as a child of God.


1. Seymour V. Reit, Sibling Rivalry, New York: Random House, 1985, p. 17.

2. Ibid., p. 16.

3. Ibid., p. 20.

4. Ibid., p. 18.

5. Don Dinkmeyer and Gary C. McKay, STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting)-The Parents Handbook, American Guidance Service, Minnesota, 1989.

6. Seymour V. Reit, Sibling Rivalry, New York: Random House, 1985, p. 48.

7. Ibid, p. 78.

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