It recently occurred to me that with the number of posts I write about the rivalry between my children, it might be easy to conclude that the respectful parenting methods I have adopted to help manage their rivalry over the years have been completely ineffective, otherwise, why would they still rival?
So, I wanted to explain why I believe such conflict still exists between my children and demonstrate just how effective the RIE strategies I have adopted over the years have been in allowing my children to build a strong and unbreakable bond with each other.
My children are aged 4 and 5 years, and like many (all) 4 and 5 year olds, they have coped with a lot in their short lives. Emotions have been up and down and they have each had their fair share of ‘hard times‘ but we (my husband and I) have always made it a priority to be there to support them through these moments with empathy, understanding, acceptance and, above all else, respect.
Their rivalry has been no different. Like most siblings, they fight. They express to each other their thoughts and feelings about the other’s existence through their words and actions. This is not 24/7 but it is almost certainly daily.
Blessed with an understanding of Magda Gerber’s RIE principles, we have been able to effectively support them through these times, carefully ensuring we do not inadvertently add more fuel to their rivalry fire, whilst at the same time, demonstrating our trust in their capabilities to to develop the skills required to deal with their conflict without us.
So, with all the strategies we have implemented, why hasn’t the conflict stopped?
Well, firstly, our aim is not to put an end to sibling rivalry for good. Our aim has been to support our children to be able to work through their feelings towards each other authentically and with acceptance. We will never be able to magically stop our children feeling the way they do, rather, we choose to meet them where they are and give them age-appropriate strategies to express themselves and grow their relationships safely.
There are many reasons our children fight.
It could be that one of them is struggling with something internally and they are looking to expel their hurt onto somone else, someone who they trust and who accepts them without judgement. Someone they know will still be their friend and play with them later despite any animosity they have expressed.
Because the girls have not been made to think there is anything wrong with conflict and have been allowed to work through it without judgement or ill-feeling from their parents, it makes sense that they feel safe to rival in this way.
Children fight because it’s interesting. When I hear one of my children bait or goad their sister, I sometimes cringe knowing what is about to transpire. But, I also recognise that, if I know where this comment is leading, so do they.
They are old enough and experienced enough to know exactly what they are getting themselves into and they also know how to get themselves out of it. It occurred to me recently, that whilst sometimes triggering to me, children get a kick out of these interactions and, despite appearances, it is possible they are even enjoyable for them.
When children fight they are practising confrontation, conflict resolution and assertiveness. These skills are important to them and it could be that they recognise their own need to strengthen themselves in these areas.
These life skills are something I have grown up without. I am very uncomfortable with conflict and confrontation. I was rarely given a chance to practise when I was younger and instead felt feelings of shame or helplessness when conflicts were managed by the adults in my life. I am thankful that this is not the case for my children.
The last reason I believe my children continue their conflict with each other is that they are children with undeveloped emotional regulation. Compounding that, they are siblings. They are siblings with completely different personalities who have been forced to live together in a small space.
As much as they enjoy each other’s company at times, there are moments when they simply do not agree, just as there are moments I do not agree with my husband. Their ideas, thoughts and perspectives of situations are different. They can empathise with each other and do so regularly but this is something that they will not have complete control over until well into their adult lives. Heck, most adults I know have trouble seeing things from other’s viewpoints.
So, with the ongoing existence of sibling rivalry in our house, how do I know that the RIE strategies we have adopted to help manage their conflicts is working to create a strong relationship between the two?
Well, in short, its the way the interact with each other in-between the heated moments that gives it away; in-between those moments where their maturity is reflective of their age. It is also the genuine love and kindness they show each other on a daily basis through thoughtful actions, words and gestures. Sometimes, now that they are getting older, it can even be seen in the way they settle their disputes with mature reasoning and consideration for each other’s needs.
The authentic respect and empathy my girls show towards each other between disagreements is mind blowing for me. And I am not just talking about trivial, everyday things I am talking about the big stuff. They respect each other’s unique qualities. They respect each other’s limitations. They respect each other as human beings with strengths and capabilities and thoughts and emotions. The kind gestures and thoughtful consideration they demonstrate is far more selfless and loving than I remember enjoying with my siblings at a young age.
I know without a shadow of a doubt that the strategies my husband and I have used to support the children through their rivalry has contributed significantly to this beautiful relationship. Here are some of the rewards of respectfully parenting sibling rivalry.
1. Kind Gestures
My husband bought my children new underwear last weekend. This is a big deal for them because we don’t often buy them new things so they were pretty excited at the prospect.
When my husband presented each of them with their packets of 5 undies, my 5 year old’s heart sank. My husband had unwittingly bought her the same pack that she had received for Christmas last year.She was visibly upset and ran to me crying with her disappointment.
I acknowledged her upset and held her whilst she cried. I didn’t try to make it better because, firstly, I knew I couldn’t and also, I trust that she is strong enough to be able to deal with this type of disappointment.
Either way, I didn’t need to, her sister came to the party. She had stood to the side with her pack of new, brightly designed undies, quietly taking it all in. She watched her sister cry and listened to what was making her so upset.
She could have discretely held on to her packet and kept them for herself or even rubbed in the fact that hers were different, but she didn’t. She empathised and selflessly offered, “You wanna have some of my new ones, L?”
L stood up from where she had her head on my lap. She wiped her tears and looked at her sister in appreciation. She picked up her own packet and responded through sniffles, “We could swap some.”
As they chose the undies that they wanted to swap. It was a beautiful moment between them and one that certainly added another strand in the strengthening bond between the two.
2. Loving moments
Every morning, when I leave for work the girls come to my car door to kiss me goodbye. One day recently, I was to take Miss 5 to school whilst my dear husband dropped my youngest to her Kindergarten. This doesn’t happen often (normally hubby takes both) but when it does, it sometimes causes tension between the girls both wanting to come with me.
So, on this morning, Miss 4 came to my door as usual to give me a kiss whilst her sister was being strapped into her car seat in the back. After leaving me, she went to the open back door and started to climb in. Thinking she was testing, I reminded her that she was going with Dad and needed to get into his ute. She emphatically exclaimed that she just wanted to give L a kiss and a cuddle.
They held each other in embrace for several moments before encouraging each other to have a nice day and explaining that they would miss the other.
The genuine love and care between the two was tangible and they giggled something incomprehensible together before P climbed out and ran down the footpath to wave us goodbye.
3. Respectful Conflict Resolution
One morning, Miss 4 came out of her room wearing a beanie decorated with a knitted owl. She was pulling it over her face to look through the holes in the knit and having fun doing so.
Miss 5 was quick to point out that she never got to wear that hat and P had had it for a long time. Miss 4 refuted the claim complaining that she hadn’t had it for a long time and Miss 5 maintained her position that she had.
I was tempted to explain to Miss 5 that it was Miss 4’s beanie and therefore she didn’t need to share it but I restrained myself. After the back and forth between them went on for a while (sometimes quite heatedly), Miss 4 offered, “Here, you can wear it as long as you like and when you have finished you can give it back.” She handed the beanie over and they ran off together holding hands.
I found the beanie abandoned on the floor less than two minutes later as they played cars together in the playroom.
4. Protection and Consideration
The number of times in the day that the girls defend each other (normally against my husband and I setting a limit on one of them), or refuse to begin something special without the other being ready eg the movie on movie night or an art and craft activity, is something I could never have imagined to see in my children just 2-3 years ago.
The way they share their treasured items, the way they listen to each other’s screams and cries, not always in the moment, but in good time and the way they bounce ideas off each other frequently throughout the day confirms for me that using the respectful parenting methods we have been using for the past 4 years has been the best thing for not only each of our children’s sense of self but also their developing relationship.
Both girls are completely comfortable in each other’s company. They know their own limits and they know their sister’s limits. They still like to tests these limits in each other but they know when they have had enough and are confident enough to voice that assertion.
Just like with gross motor development, the road to sibling harmony is dotted with many mini steps that are barely discernible. If we consider sibling relationships as a work in progress, accepting that fighting happens, jealousy is inevitable and baiting and goading is normal and even healthy, we can take comfort in the ever-increasing, little moments of loveliness in between, knowing that they are, in fact, forging a deep and connective friendship.
In the meantime, we can continue to support them to work through their emotional development in their own time and their own way, just as if we were enjoying them figuring out how to walk, talk, or write. If we teach them before they are ready to learn, we might rob them of some valuable, relationship-deepening experiences along the way.
If you are working through sibling rivalry, I highly recommend Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too ~ Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury