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Sibling Rivalry: Butting Heads, Butting Out

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Is your kids' sibling rivalry driving you crazy? Read this!

boy and girl fighting

Brett Berk: A desperate mother recently wrote me. This isn't unusual; it's part of my job. What was unusual was that the note made me laugh out loud. "Dear Gay Uncle," it said. "My children are driving me insane with their arguing. I kid you not, the other day we were in the car and one of them said, 'MY beautiful day.' And the other said, 'No, MY beautiful day.' They were actually fighting over the weather! I am at my wit's end right now! HELP!"

After I'd finished gurgling over her children's ability to translate something as benign as blue skies into a source of needling hostility, I wrote back, giving the mom three big pointers on sibling rivalry.I will now share them with you.

Butt Out: Who cares if the kids argue over something as idiotic as who owns the sun? If you try inserting yourself into every one of these conflicts, you will not only drive yourself crazy, you will set up the expectation that you are a) interested, b) capable of solving them and c) willing to parlay a two-way fight into a three-way fight. Instead, calmly provide a simple statement -- like, "Please find a different way to talk to each other" -- and then just leave it alone. They need to figure out how to come to some kind of understanding, and part of that process is going to entail their getting through an entire fight and emerging on the other side.

Provide Peaceful Examples: Kids generally participate in needless arguments not because they're inherently evil, but because they lack the skills or language to figure things out some other way. Your job as the adult is to provide these skills in a positivist manner. (Note: Screaming "Stop that fighting!" is notpositivist.) They need methods and templates that they can use to resolve their conflicts: taking turns, sharing, understanding that two people can have the same or different reactions or feelings, finding other things to occupy them, displacing their anger, removing themselves from a situation, negotiating. It can actually be easier and more beneficial to provide these at a time when conflict is not occurring. Make up situations and have the kids try to resolve them, a la: "We have three hot dogs and only two people. What can we do?" or "I'm going to pick out one kind of ice cream at the store for us all to share. Let's try to come up with a flavor we agree on."

Have Realistic Expectations: Don't expect any of this to work as a magic bullet (i.e., right away). Like I said, realizing that there's a whole world of need beyond your egocentric self is a normal part of growing up. It's called "human development," and it will take tons of practice. (In case you haven't noticed, most adults aren't very good at it.) And as their brother-sister fight club may never entirely cease to operate, be sure to figure out how best to remove yourself from the equation.

Well, that was a week ago. This morning, I got another e-mail from the desperate mom, entitled "SUCCESS!":"Today, I took the kids to the store and they each got a cupcake," she wrote. "On the way home, they were arguing over which cupcake they chose. 'MY pink cupcake!' my daughter shouted. 'MY brown cupcake!' my son yelled back. And so on. This is when I normally would have stepped in and tried (unsuccessfully) to break up the fight. Instead, I took your advice and sat back and listened. Within five minutes, this was the conversation: Son: 'You like pink cupcakes and I like brown cupcakes!' Daughter: 'Yeah! I like pink cupcakes and you like brown cupcakes!' If I wasn't already happy enough, a few seconds later I heard my son tell his sister, 'I'm sorry I yelled at you.' Thanks again!!"

This made me happy -- not just because I'm an egocentric advice-giver and love to be right, or because I hate pink AND brown cupcakes (I prefer yellow), but because my plan made both the kids and the mom happy (or at least happier than they were before). Busting you out of your parenting bubble -- that's what Gay Uncles are for.



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