Gentle Discipline

My regrettable dealings with sibling rivalry

Admitting you have a favourite child is something you just don't do – in public. Because even though it's taboo, almost ALL mothers and children believe there is a 'golden child' in their family.

And it happens so subtly. As a parent, you might bond more closely with a child that is more like you, or your spouse. On an instinctual level, you may attach more value to the child who has 'superior' genes. An older child might dominate younger rivals, better attracting the your attention. Or a chronically sick child might demand more of your time. It's not your fault.

But on the downside, whether you're mum's golden child or her black sheep, siblings who feel consistently rejected OR favored, are more likely to show depressive symptoms as adults – even if they've been living away from home for years, with a family of their own.

A few little facts about sibling rivalry. Children perceive differential treatment between themselves and a sibling as young as one year old. The most intense sibling rivalry tends to be between brothers close in age, and least between sisters (in the case of my boys). If a child is out-performed by their sibling in some way, they risk low self-esteem, depression and jealousy. They are even likely to abandon an activity altogether to avoid direct competition, even if they show great potential themselves.

Siblings strive for significance within the family. Each child competing to define who they are as worthy individuals, separate from their siblings. Having to compete for your praise and approval is what fuels sibling rivalry.

In my own home, the rivalry between our boys was intense. Upon well-meaning advice that I read in parenting mag's and websites, I would praise and reward our boys incessantly when they'd do something that was pleasing. I didn't realise homelife had become one giant competition to our little boys, and it was vicious, sometimes violent.

To eliminate the competitive environment, we had to change how we phrased our encouragement – we emphasized the importance of the action we were trying to encourage, not the 'goodness' of the child. I've often heard this said regarding reprimanding a child, "it's the behaviour that's bad, not the child". But ANY personal judgments and labels based on your child's behaviour, whether 'good' or 'bad', will stress your child. These statements inadvertently tell your child your love and attention is conditional, based upon how well they perform. And further, they have a sibling competing with them, threatening to outdo their efforts. So even if they're efforts are immense, they'll still be worse in comparison to a more able sibling.

I am in no doubt why siblings get so stressed – who wants to feel like the rejected, abandoned, runt of the litter? Whether your child does what you want or not, at the end of the day they NEED to know you love them regardless of how well they perform. And far more powerful than any words, affection, touch, playing together, and being listened to tells children they are a 'good and worthy' person, with a permanent, appreciated place in the family.

It is perfectly understandable we may like or relate more to one particular child , just admit it and move on. Our challenge is to provide each child with an equal amount of child-led, one-on-one time together, and minimize competition within the home by leaving personal judgments and labels – whether 'good' or 'bad' – for the actions in question, not the child.


Favoritism Does Exist!
by Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.
Moms' Favoritism Tied To Depressive Symptoms In Adult Children
by Co-authors: Suitor, professor of sociology at Purdue University; Charles Henderson, senior research associate in human development, and Ph.D. student Seth Pardo, both of Cornell.
Sibling Rivalry
by Kyla Boyse

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