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When Siblings Fight
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Q: My boys are six and four. My older son prefers playing by himself, and when I make him share with his younger brother, he just goes to something else. For example, when I suggest they take turns shooting baskets, my six-year-old will either quit or go get a different ball so he doesn’t have to share. Should I let him quit, or should I force him to share?

A: I predict that this problem will eventually work itself out. From the point of view of a six-year-old who’s in school, a four-year-old brother almost qualifies as a baby. Within a few years, however, the age difference won’t be as significant, and the older boy will become more accepting of his little brother as a playmate.

In the meantime, I advise you to leave this alone. The more you try to force or even suggest that he share, the worse the problem is likely to get. It would be good for your mental health if you were to stop feeling like you need to manage their play and leave your boys to their own devices.

I’ve been recommending a hands-off approach to sibling conflict since I began writing this column in 1976. As is the case with any parenting policy, this one is not absolute. Some sibling conflicts do require parental intervention, such as when one sibling is being purposefully cruel to another who is much younger.

But it isn’t unusual for a younger sibling to accept significant pain inflicted by an older one for the reward of seeing the older one punished when he (the younger one) complains. For that reason, it’s difficult to judge the dynamics of sibling conflict.

I recommend creating a rule that requires the children to manage their conflict so that it doesn’t disturb the peace of the family. The rule is broken when one of the children does anything to attract parental attention; screaming, crying, calling for help, tattling, and so on.

A violation of the rule results in both kids being punished equally, which motivates both of them to learn to work things out without attracting attention. A mom who tried this sent me the following testimonial:

“Before I read your books, I was convinced that my oldest son was a bully and my other two children were victims. Reluctantly, I followed your advice and punished both kids when fighting broke out. Most of the time, I believed it was my oldest son’s fault, but I still gave them both consequences. It’s been five months now, and I keep thinking I live in a different house with a different set of kids. They almost never fight, and when they do they work it out themselves.

“My relationship with my oldest son has improved, and he feels much better about himself. I think in the past his siblings were figuring out ways to push his buttons so that he’d get in trouble.

“Now he feels more valued and loved in our family. Your techniques don’t always work overnight, but I do think this one is worth sticking with.”

To which I would point out that in most cases, techniques that work overnight are rarely still working after thirty nights.

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By John Rosemond. Reprinted with persmission from Signs of the Times, August 2008. Copyright © 2009 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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