By Elicia Brown / Beliefnet.com
Not so very long ago, my daughter’s passions included her Elmo doll, her art projects, and an unfortunate activity she referred to as “the buzz.” With her arms wrapped tightly around the wobbly form of her baby brother, she would open her mouth as wide as possible and lick his head until he cried.
I wondered if these two small creatures who shared my womb, albeit two years and eight months apart, would ever truly enjoy each other’s company. Four years later, my children adore each other. And abhor each other. But my children aren’t the first to engage in a little sibling rivalry (and I am not the first parent who’s had to deal with it). Here are 10 simple steps to help us, as parents, lessen the impact of sibling rivalry.
1. Naughty by Nature
As bad as it might be in your household, take heart: It’s rare to find a family without this friction.
I guarantee the siblings of Genesis clashed with greater force. Cain slew Abel. Jacob and Esau wrestled even before they emerged from Rebecca’s womb. Rachel and Leah vied for Jacob’s sexual attentions. Joseph’s brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites for 20 silver coins.
These examples “serve to remind us that the sibling relationship is filled with complexity and competitiveness,” says Susan Bodnar, a New York-based psychologist. “The stories of the Torah tell us about how rich, textural and multi-dimensional families are.”
As the Torah reminds us, sibling strife is natural.
2. Don’t Play Favorites
The Torah also teaches us that parents can exacerbate sibling tensions.
Isaac and Rebecca, for instance, provide a good lesson in bad parenting. Rebecca showed her preference for her reflective son Jacob. Isaac showered his affections on Jacob’s brother Esau, the hairy hunter. And the twins hated each other.
As parents, it can be difficult to reinvent a new style, different from that with which we were raised. So it goes with the biblical Jacob. If only he’d learned: Do not choose favorites.
When he became a father, Jacob selected Joseph as his favorite child, rewarding him with a coat of many colors. Joseph’s brothers didn’t stand idly by. They tossed Joseph into a pit, and sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites.
4. To Butt In or Not to Butt In
Parents often wonder whether to rush to the scene of their children’s battles.
Meredith Jacobs, who is the author of “A Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat,” says that her own parents always mediated arguments. And Jacobs, who lives in Rockville, Md., does the same with her two children. After all, her parents’ approach worked. Today that sister is her best friend.
Gitty Rosenfeld, the principal of an online Jewish school, employs the opposite strategy with her brood of 12 children in Brooklyn — so long as no one is brandishing a broom over another child’s head.
As for me, when I’m able to, I try to guide my children, ages 4 and 6, through their disagreements. I restate their arguments to each other, ask them for solutions, and if none arise, offer a few compromises of my own. Of course, that’s in an ideal world.
5. Celebrate Individuality
Rabbi Leana Moritt has three boys, all with straight brown hair and brown eyes. Line them up, she says, and they look almost identical. In temperament and talents, however, they differ greatly.
The rabbi, who is a life coach at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, says that in parenting, we must remember the concept of betzelem elohim, that each child is made in the image of God, that every individual possesses distinct gifts. As parents, we should seek to celebrate and support the individuality of our children, to praise and empower children differently.
This might apply if, for example, one daughter excels in sports, the other in schoolwork. Rabbi Moritt says that when her spacy son arrives home with his jacket intact, she responds more enthusiastically than when her more grounded son manages to bring his home.
6. Watch Your Language
Children should learn the power of the spoken word and be encouraged to speak respectfully toward their siblings. Jews believe that words, as well as sticks and stones, can hurt you. As one Yiddish proverb puts it: “A blow passes on; a spoken word lingers on.”
In my house, we set up a chart, awarding star stickers to those able to maintain kind speech. Sadly, the project lasted only one day, when my daughter announced that she dislikes this “silly I love you day.” In another breath, she addressed her brother, who was snuggling/smothering her: “Sincerely stupid, will you please get off me.”
I have not given up — because in our house, one sister’s harsh words too often lead to her brother’s harsh blows, or at least yanks of her blonde hair.
7. Thou Shalt Not Brag
The Ten Commandments teach, “Thou shalt not covet.”
But pity the sibling of the child who seemingly acquired every advantageous gene in the family’s pool. Isn’t it normal for his less favored sibling to envy him? According to the rabbis, with advantages come responsibilities. The fortunate son should teach and assist his siblings, not gloat, like the biblical Joseph.
In the case of my own family, in which a big sister is currently a more competent jump-roper, problem solver, and artist than her little brother, a parent could respond to her bragging: “It’s true, you’re better. You’re the one to empower your brother,” by teaching him how to turn a rope, or draw a face, or count to 1,000, suggests Nomi Marks, an Orthodox family therapist.
8. Make ‘Alone Time’
Children can also benefit from a specially slated day — or afternoon — or even 20 minutes — alone with a parent. Alone time reaffirms bonds and reminds the child that they are treasured. Confident in the love of their parents, children lash out less often at their siblings.
9. Be a Good Role Model
Children also learn from their parents’ arguments. If mom and dad exchange angry words but later resolve their issues peaceably, children learn that calm often follows sound and fury. They understand that discord doesn’t mean divorce; that moving on is possible in their own relationships too.
Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, a mother of three, and director of a preschool based at a large Jewish Community Center, advises: “Explain your failures. Use them as learning opportunities.” Tell the children, “I really messed up. I lost my temper. I probably hurt his feelings.”