Young Sibling Rivalry: What is Fair

Dealing with conflict among young siblings is a difficult parenting struggle. Most books on the market discuss how to resolve conflict among older children, usually 12 and over, who have relatively robust reasoning skills. But the situation is different when young children are involved. Here is a typical conflict. How would you handle it?

Let’s say you have two children: One, a boy, is 4 1/2 and another, a girl, is 2. (Ok, not going to lie: These are my kids). The 4 year old is using the chalkboard, doing mathematical equations. The 2 year old, who is always interested in her big brother, comes to the chalkboard, with her own chalk, eager to copy her older brother. The 4-year old shouts at her, then growls, trying to threaten her to go away.

I’ll tell you some things that go through my brain when this happens, which, right or wrong, contribute to the situation. First, I’m thinking: I really wish her brother would let her play with him. She no doubt would learn from him. Is it really a big deal that she scribbles next to him while he does equations? Second, I’m thinking: G%$#$&%, my 4-year old is being a jerk.

It is clear the aggressive behavior needs to stop. I admit I used to get over the top mad at the 4-year old for being aggressive towards his sister, that I didn’t care if he continued his original activity.

I was really grateful to read this article, 5 things that happened when I stopped making my kids share. I don’t make my kids share, but I needed some more clarity on how to handle conflicts when they arise. What brought clarity to this situation for me is the one rule the author (in appropriate contexts) enforces: Whatever kid is actively engaged with a toy is allowed to keep using it until done. The author says she got inspiration from Magda Gerber.

So, back to the example. Here is how I handled it:

First, after my son started threatening his sister, I took a deep breath in. Because, not going to lie, my natural reaction was to get really mad at him and yell. I then physically restrained my son, to stop aggression. I asked him to take a deep breath too. I told him I had to protect his sister, and when he was calm, I could let him go. After this happened, I gently lifted his sister up and away from the chalkboard, and got her doing something else. Happily, at 2 years old, she is very easily distracted like this. I told my son that he had a right to use the chalkboard until he was done.

Some would probably say that the boy needed to be punished for being aggressive. I disagree. First, punishment is not a teacher. It gains temporary obedience. It does not give a lesson learned. Positive Discipline books argue that people cannot be changed by blame, shame, or pain. Plus, it is nearly impossible. It is difficult for me to restrain my 4 year old as it is, let alone enforce a “punishment,” such as timeout on him.

Let’s look at the situation: He had a legitimate reason to be angry. Did he handle it the best way? No. But he’s 4. And knowing how to deal with situations like this is a learned skill.

I have found since consistently enforcing this rule, my children have a lot less conflict. I think it makes them feel safe. My son knows I will deal with sister when she is annoying him. Both know nothing will be taken from them against their will. I’ve removed his need to wig out when his sister threatens his activity.

I go out of my way to avoid power struggles. Power struggles are a sign that something is wrong. But with this rule, it is sometimes necessary to stop a child from doing something, which can be a power struggle. But, I find it’s a lot easier to stop a child from interfering with another child. I am asking them to not start doing an activity that they aren’t yet entitled to. If I forced the child currently engaged in the activity to stop, or even just share part of the activity with the other, that would be a huge power struggle. It would make the child very, very angry. Asking them to stop before they even started is a lot easier. They seem to get it, and easily agree to what I am asking. Usually.

I find having this approach allows me to do more lessons with the kids. I admit I was saving most formal lessons that I do with my 4 year old for when the 2 year old took a nap. It’s a lot easier when she is napping, as there is no even potential for conflict. But when I consistently enforce that the 2-year old cannot interfere with the 4-year old, I can more safely give a lesson, even with her around.

I admit I am a bit sad when one won’t let the other join in on an activity. But, that is their right. And, though that little bit of learning is lost, overall, this method preserves and maximizes learning for all of my children.

This is the fundamental “justice” system that we have laid down. It doesn’t cover all situations. I discuss in-the-moment conflict resolution for stickier situations in my next blog post about this.

Finally, I want to make some notes about how the Montessori system deals with this potential conflict.

In a Montessori school, children are taught to get a mat out and set it down. They then bring their activity to the mat. They and they alone work on the activity. When they are done, they put the activity away. Children are taught not to interrupt each other, though if cooperation is agreed to, I believe the children are allowed to work together.

I admit this seems so ideal. And it is one workable situation. It is employed in hundreds of schools across the nation. I don’t doubt that some moms even make it work in their home.

But, here is the deal: It can be hard to enforce day after day. I have visited many Montessori schools, and it cannot be denied that the teachers often look frustrated and at their wit’s end. They constantly have to correct children who step on each other’s mats or don’t pick up their toys or otherwise stray from this system. That it is frustrating seems especially true in the 3  – 6 year old room. Things are typically more calm in the 6 – 9 year old room.

In a home setting, I found it about impossible to enforce. In a Montessori classroom, there is a teacher and an assistant, whose sole job is the teaching of lessons and the maintenance of the classroom. In a home setting, there is but mom, and she also has cooking, dishes, laundry, etc., to do. She might have a very young baby to deal with. (Ahem.) At this point, getting my 4-year old in particular to put one toy away after getting one toy out is a power struggle. From the time he was 2, we favored doing clean up at the end of the night, rather than constantly throughout the day. That is the habit that developed, which we did for our own reasons. And I admit *I* don’t put things away immediately upon using them. I tend to clean up daily or every few days. My children are picking up on my habits.

I’m not trying to undermine this system. It is one system that can work. I just want to write, if you don’t do this, you may find something else that works for you, and that’s ok.

But, the more rules there are (lessons have to be on a mat, the child has to clean them up, etc.), the more coaching, habit formation, and correction is needed. The less rules, the less of this you have to do–but the more conflict resolution you have to do.

And I am actually happy that, in our house, we don’t have a justice system that dictates all or most of the children’s action. My children thus can get practice at conflict resolution amongst each other. That is the topic of my next post on this topic, after this one about what is fair: Young Sibling Rivalry: Forget “Fair”.

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