This may come as a surprise to you but ‘sibling rivalry’ is not your problem right now. In fact, it never has been.
The problem is how we as parents handle that normal and healthy inclination we find in our children to compete. And once we make that shift in thinking, all of the headaches associated with sibling rivalry shift with it.
One of our jobs as parents is to create a family culture within which every member feels safe and understood.
Let's be honest about something.
We want our kids to be saints but we also want them to do well in other areas of their lives: in school, in their extracurricular activities, in their hobbies, and soon enough in their careers and at their places of employment. In other words, we want them to compete because we want them to have more options in adulthood; we want them to challenge themselves personally and grow in character; and we want them to know that they can accomplish great things even when it is uncomfortable or requires great work to do so.
And though it is true that we want this, as the child's parents we know that when this same level of competitive spirit is displayed within the family, it never ends well. Spouses competing with each other, parents competing with their children, or - more on point here - siblings competing with one another, these all lead to a sense of distrust and solitude.
As I mentioned more than once in the parenting program, Me & My House, one of our jobs as parents is to create a family culture within which every member feels safe and understood, and part of that understanding is an awareness and affirmation of every child’s gifts.
Look at it like this.
If we are all involved in building a house (a literal house), then it does little for the plumber to compete with the electrician, or the roofer with the carpenter. And it is especially fruitless for any one of these individuals to beat themselves up over their lack of expertise in another’s trade. All are needed in order to build the same house.
To take the analogy one step further, the right approach, or the expected approach is for each professional to be called upon when their skill is needed.
Now look at the family.
We have to get in the habit of not only speaking about our family as a unique culture but as a team with unique individuals who bring their own gifts, talents, and virtues to the table.
We need to be able to say something like, “Did you see Caleb use his gift today? Jonah was feeling pretty frustrated and Caleb just cheered him right up with his gift of humour. Thank you, Caleb." as casually as we might say, “Pass the salt.”
You see, it is when we become aware of each other’s unique gifts in the family and hear our own being appreciated by others that sibling rivalry shrivels.
“I am not as good at math as my brother” is what a child says when they feel like they have to be as good as their brother to be appreciated. “I need my brother’s help because he is good at math,” is what a child says when he knows that his brother is on his team.
“I can’t throw a ball as well as my sister,” is what a child says when they believe that their ability to throw a frisbee well is not valued by the family culture. “I want my sister to teach me how to throw a ball,” is what a child says when they know that each skill set in the family is for them and not to be lorded over them.
“I can read faster than you,” is precisely what you would expect to hear from those competing for the same job rather than a team tasked with building the same house.
So it comes down to this.
Sibling rivalry is what follows when our focus is not on building our house. It is what happens among siblings when we, the parents, do not create a family culture that articulates and highlights every member’s uniqueness. Rivalry occurs when we come to believe that competition belongs everywhere, even in the family – among those faces that God has surrounded me with.
So it’s time for a shift. Name each child’s gift, talent, and virtue. Talk about it often and call on them when they are needed.
“Hey Gabriel, your mother could really use your talents today. Could you lend her a hand?”
That’s how we build a house, and that’s how we begin to eliminate sibling rivalry.
Patrick Sullivan is an author and speaker, father of nine children, and creator and host of Me & My House, the Catholic parenting program that is transforming how we minister to parents in our dioceses, parishes, and communities.