Dealing With Sibling Rivalry

The fear of running out of love is at the root of this thing we call sibling rivalry.

Elizabeth Curry March 16, 2017
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I think all of us deal with the feeling of there not being enough… not enough money, not enough jobs, not enough opportunities… and in some sense, this is true. We can’t all be multi-millionaires or attend the same school or have the same job. Life doesn’t work that way. Problems start rolling in when we take the idea of not enough material things and extend the ‘not enough’ thinking to intangibles, like love. While we can all pay lip service to the idea that we cannot run out of love, we often behave as though love, too, is a limited commodity. And this fear that there is not enough love to go around can begin very early in life. The fear of running out of love is at the root of this thing we call sibling rivalry.

Sibling rivalry is the competition between brothers and sisters for their parents’ love and attention. This rivalry can play out in all sorts of ways, but is most often accompanied by bickering and arguing and fighting between siblings. It can range from annoying to downright harmful. It can last for a season or it can continue into adulthood. If you search the term ‘sibling rivalry,’ you will end up with more than six million choices of links. It makes me wonder what more I can add to six million web pages discussing rivalry between siblings.

…Any suggestions I have to share are more directed at the behavior of the parents than at the (mis)behavior of the children.

In casting a cursory glance through a few of the links, I did notice something. Often the suggestions and advice centered on the behavior and attitudes of the children themselves. It seems to me that if the root of sibling rivalry is the fear that there is not enough parental love and attention to go around, then it may not be productive to focus on the behavior which happens as a result of this fear. Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the root of the problem and attack head on the mistaken notion that love is a limited commodity? I think so, and therefore, any suggestions I have to share are more directed at the behavior of the parents than at the (mis)behavior of the children.

I have twelve children. I know the popular stone that is first lobbed at large families is that the parents cannot possibly give enough love and attention to so many children. While I don’t pretend that all large families function well, I certainly know more than a few large families that function very well. If love and attention were limited quantities (as we sometimes assume) that needed to be spread around evenly, then we really shouldn’t ever see instances of extreme sibling rivalry in families with, say, two children. Yet I have listened to people’s experiences of growing up with just one other sibling where the rivalry was intense and bitter and painful, to a degree that I don’t hear about with larger numbers of siblings. There must be something more.

As each parent thinks about how they relate to their children and encourage their children to relate to each other, I think there are some questions that need to be answered. Also keep in mind that even emotionally healthy children can easily fall prey to competing for a parent’s attention and love. If this is the case, then how much more so is this true for our children who come from harder backgrounds?

Do you model scarcity or plenty in your mindset?

As someone who often lives paycheck to paycheck, I know how easy it is to focus on what we don’t have. And when I am spending my days dwelling on our perceived lack, it is so easy to let that infect all areas of my life. It is in the little things I say to my children, the statements of not having enough, of there not being enough, of worrying about the future. It creates a mindset of fear. This fear can consume a family. When I am really thinking about it, I try to be careful about statements which communicate my fear to my children. I don’t need to saddle them with adult-level problems, and instead can help them see the daily blessings that we do have. We do have a place to live. We do have food to eat. We do indeed have many wonderful things. Reassuring our children that we do have enough can stop incipient fear in its tracks and the need to fight for resources, whatever those resources may be.

When you pay attention to your children, do you really pay attention to them?

Too many times a child has come up to me while I am doing something else and asked me something or told me something, and my response is a glance in their direction and a mumbled, “Uh huh.” The more demanding of my children feel free to call me on this and point out that I am not really listening. They are correct, and so I must apologize and then really look at them and listen as they repeat what they said. When we do not fully engage with our children, and only give them the crumbs from all the other things we are involved in, we help to create a climate of competition between our children for our affection. Often this competition isn’t even with another sibling, but very often with a phone, a computer, a job, or whatever else is perceived to be higher in our regard than our child. The fear this creates may come out in fighting with a sibling, but the sibling was merely a handy bystander. Just the act of really looking at a child and listening in an engaged way can make that child feel loved and heard like nothing else can.

Love is not something that is ever used up.

How do you brag about your children?

It’s oh so easy to let your children overhear you telling a friend about the great goal they scored, the class they aced, the scholarship they won, or the college they got in. How often do your children hear you tell someone about the time they shared a toy, helped a friend, didn’t argue about the last cookie? Of course our children need to know we are proud of them. Of course they need to know we think they are smart and capable. The problem comes when we narrow down what makes them smart and capable and worthy of being proud of. This is extremely important when you have children of vastly different interests and abilities. Every child needs to know they have value for who they are, be careful that you do more than give lip service to this idea.

Do you give thanks for your children’s failures?

This may seems strange, I know, but it is so important. While learning to fail is important in many different ways, in terms of sibling and parenting relationships it is vital. A child who fails or messes up gives you, the parent, a chance to demonstrate that your love is not dependent upon what they do, but on who they are. A child who knows his parents love him unconditionally is a child who doesn’t need to fight or compete for that love. Without failure, there is no knowledge that love isn’t earned. The minute that love is seen as a reward, then it again becomes limited and a source of competition.

Love is not something that is ever used up. If I have learned anything from parenting twelve children, it’s that love grows. It is inexhaustible and can be lavished upon others without any fear of running out. And when you need a reminder, be sure to reread A Baby Sister for Frances by Russell Hoban, and remember to tell your children that ‘there will always be plenty of chocolate cake around here for everyone.’

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Elizabeth Curry

Elizabeth Curry is mother to 12 children, five of whom were adopted: two from Vietnam and three from China. She hopes that by sharing the experiences of her family she can encourage others in the trenches. When she is not taking care of children, Elizabeth writes, home schools, sews, teaches piano, and loves reading. You can follow along with her loud and crazy life at her blog, Ordinary Time.


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