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Siblings Without Rivalry – When Kids Fight

Siblings fight. Whether it’s Jan and Marcia bickering over who gets to use the bathroom first or Arnold asking Willis what he’s talking about, that’s just what they do. But who knew, long before Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote Siblings Without Rivalry, Clair Huxtable was modeling how to help your children live together on the Cosby Show? Remember the episode when she “sentences” Rudy and Vanessa to the basement after their quarreling results in actual property damage. The girls pack their bags and move into the cellar until they can resolve their situation.

Siblings Without Rivalry argues that you need to let your kids work it out by themselves; otherwise, they will always involve you in solving disputes. In other words, imagine you are Switzerland. According to Faber and Mazlish, you need to ignore the normal squabbling, think about your happy place, and tell yourself the children are having an important experience in conflict resolution. That’s not to say there isn’t a helpful way to intervene if a situation is heating up; you just want to be sure you’re not undermining their ability to solve problems on their own.

The authors suggest you keep the following steps in mind if you plan to wade into a war zone:

1. Start by acknowledging the children’s anger towards each other. That alone should help calm them. Something like, “Wow! You two sound angry at each other.”

2. Listen to each child’s side with respect. “So it was your idea to build a zoo, and you wanted to do it by yourself. But when you saw him playing you wanted to play, too.”

3. Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem. “I see…Hmm…This is a tough one. Two children who both want to use the same toys at the same time.”

4. Express faith in their ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution. “I have confidence that if you two put your heads together, you’ll come up with a solution that feels fair to each of you.”

5. Leave the room. “While you’re working on it, I’ll be making dinner.” (And in my case, often implementing the ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere’ strategy.)

Of course, if the fighting is heading toward hurting, then you need to separate them, giving them time to cool off. When the children can’t work out a problem by themselves, then you’ll need to help them express their feelings and brainstorm solutions until you find one everyone can live with. The key is to make sure that you don’t pick sides. If you do, then one child will feel like she won and the other will feel like she lost.

Faber and Mazlish say, “We are searching for ways to increase good feelings between our children. For ways to make fighting less likely. When parents take the stance: ‘In this house I’m the one who’s going to decide who has to share, who gets to keep; what’s reasonable, what’s unreasonable; who is right, who is wrong,’ the children end up becoming more dependent upon the parent and more hostile towards their siblings.”

Naturally, this was the rare week in my house when my girls got along so I have no revealing anecdote to share on how well this advice actually worked. I thought for sure once the kids had a two-hour delay on Wednesday morning that a storm would brew but no such luck. I know it’s wrong, but I found myself wishing for any kind of altercation by Thursday. “Come on, girls. Mommy’s got a blog to write.”

Instead, we dropped Annabelle off at school and after she closed the door, Lily said, “I love her so much.” I wished there was some way to capture that moment so I can remind her of it the next time they fight, because they will fight, again. And this time, when reinforcement is called in, I will be on a peacekeeping mission, not a hostile takeover. 


Victoria Winterhalter

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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