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Dr. Kate Roberts Headshot

Learning Not to Referee My Children

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DR KATE ROBERTS
Dr. Kate Roberts

After spending a week on vacation with my two boys, I learned more about sibling rivalry than I cared to know. From moment one, there were ongoing battles over really, really important things, like whether the ball crossed a certain line or who had more points at any one time, or who is going first or who got a bigger piece of cake. The list of things that 8- and 10-year-old brothers can fight about is endless.

The real eye-opener came when they returned from playing "football" on the beach with my son's front baby tooth unexpectedly about to fall out. Both boys insisted that the tooth was already wobbly and the tackle football only made the tooth looser. It's funny how I never knew that tooth was loose.

Or there was the time when I sent them to change clothes and they had to take turns and my older son returned first to say to me, "Don't say anything, but my nose is bleeding after being punched by my brother." That made me realize he viewed me more like a peer than a parent and one that he could boss around, not the reverse.

I know my boys never attempted to hurt each other. They are best friends as well as rivals. It's just that when they are brothers competing -- whether it's over a football or who uses the changing room first -- all bets are off regarding how far each will go to be declared the victor.

My method of resolving their conflicts had been to referee the resolution. They asked me to and fell for it, even thought I know better. By refereeing their sibling rivalry conflicts I had become one of them. It makes sense because in playing this role, and "calling" outcomes I inherently sided with one sibling over the other and thus joined in. I became part of the cycle; drawn in as an attempt to end it, instead, only perpetuating it and making it bigger.

So what can parents do to end the ongoing saga of sibling rivalry squabbles? Sibling rivalry can be a positive learning tool; rivalry teaches children how to negotiate, share and be successful in different roles such as leader, follower, winner and loser. This life experience comes in handy when children are faced with similar challenges in their lives outside of the home.

The best, most effective parenting combines several strategies. Here are five primary components:

1. First know the difference between sibling rivalry and sibling bullying. Rivalry is a style of interaction that typically exists between siblings close in age and of the same gender as part of their development within the context of a multi-child family. Rivalry is competition regarding who got "more or better" at any given time.

In contrast, in a sibling bullying cycle, one sibling, usually older, dominates interactions through a position of a power over a weaker or younger sibling. The older siblings use age, strength and experience to coerce and intimidate the younger siblings. Consequences in the sibling bullying dynamic need to be given to the bullying sibling solely, unlike sibling rivalry, where both siblings are held accountable.

2. Hold all children accountable equally through predetermined consequences. When rivalry is out of control, implement a two-step consequence. Step one involves stopping the activity or play and step two is imparting consequences such as removal of pleasurable activities. Examples of consequences for younger children include a timeout or lack of TV time and for older children, removal of electronics for a period of time.

3. Arrange a sit-down squabble session. Kids resist a designed time to air their differences because it interferes with other, more fun activities and they often feel foolish sitting down "talking" about their conflicts. Explain that they can earn their way out of this by demonstrating control over their rivalry squabbles during shared activities.

4. Discuss the standards of expected behavior prior to play. The conversation goes something like this: "When you play together, what typically happens?" Get them to agree to and state their consequences and remind them that you will not referee.

5. Parents need to be aware of child resistance. Children will resist the new plan and may unite together as an attempt to keep the status quo. For example, they may l make a pact to hide conflict and fighting from their parents. Their logic is 'since mom isn't going to take a side, if you don't tell, I won't tell.'

Kids will accept the new parenting model after a week of consistent implementation. Take a deep breath, keep your eyes wide open and forge ahead armed with these strategies for combating the combativeness between your children.