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Corralling the good in sibling rivalry

Published: Monday, April 21 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Meanwhile, a briefing paper on sibling rivalry from the University of Michigan Health System said most siblings become close even if they've been rivals and that "working things out with siblings gives your children a chance to develop important skills like cooperating and being able to see another person's point of view."

"My kids kill and adore each other," said Darah Zeledon of Plantation, Fla. The children closest in age often want the same toys or prizes. But, she added, they also, "when not killing each other, play nicely because they share interests."

The boys, Natan, 9, and Yair, 7, are the most competitive, usually around sports. Leah, 10, competes with everyone. She's the "scorekeeper," concerned about fairness. Yordana, 12, competes with her around academics. Dalia, 6, will compete with anyone because she doesn't want to be left behind.

"I think parents need to realize there are ways to channel that for good," Zeledon, author of "Girl with the Crooked Smile — Stuck in a Moment," said. "It can help children try to do things better: who has the best manners, the best grades. Worded properly, it can encourage in a positive way."

Rivalry among her children over objects doesn't last, but the quest for the attention of Zeledon and her husband, Joaquin, is constant, she said. They try to impress their parents with grades, manners and other things. She's not easily impressed, she added, so they end up trying harder. "It does encourage them to do better."

David and Lu Simonsen usually prefer their children work things out. "It eliminates tattletaling to some degree," he said. "It helps them learn to negotiate and compromise."

As it did with their kids' eBay sale, rivalry can motivate and prompt healthy competition. "You take that and extrapolate that out to when your children are in the real world," said their dad. "If a child is not motivated and does not know how to resolve conflict, that child is going to have a tough go of it trying to be 'successful.’ ”

Vanessa Wade of Houston grew up the youngest of seven kids and was often compared to her siblings. "Did I like it? Not that much," said Wade, 33. "Yet I learned how to stand out among them, and it carried over into my professional career. I believe rivalry is part of life. It motivates you to think on your own, be creative and can yield good results. As long as you are comfortable in your skin and don't feel like a failure, it is normal to have healthy competition. Sometimes our siblings are a wake-up call — if they can do it, so can you."

Her middle siblings were known for good grades and leadership. "Teachers would say, 'You know that your sister passed with an A in advanced chemistry,' or 'Your brother did an outstanding project' and give me a look as to say 'You are going to outdo them, right?’ ” said Wade, who owns Connect the Dots Public Relations. She worked harder.

Turning down the heat

Children under 4 have no hope of working things out themselves, Walfish said. They are still learning language and how to express themselves. They aren't able to compromise or delay gratification. Parents have the job of socializing children and teaching skills.

For older children and even adults who can still experience sibling rivalry, Walfish suggests appreciating healthy competition and working on self-awareness. The more one can look inside, the more capable of happy, satisfying relationships that person will be. "What is helpful is if parents equip kids to deal with disappointments," Walfish said.

The little Simonsen girls argued so much over dolls that their parents made a simple rule: If someone is playing with something, even if it's yours, you're not allowed to ask for it, he said. No one's going to play with anything for that long; eventually everyone moves on to something else.

The Zeledons, too, have rules: No belittling each other. No bullying. If one sibling degrades or is condescending to the other, that child must apologize and do something to make up for it. A brother who makes fun of a littler sibling's lack of skateboarding skills will spend an hour teaching the little one to skateboard, she said.

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