Siblings, Rivalry and Brawling

Family Matters on 07.14.11
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Image courtesy Betsy Van der Meer/Getty Images

Last weekend my good friend and her 2-year-old daughter came over for a play date with my 2-year-old daughter. The girls were gingerly sticking their feet into the cold water of the kiddy pool when I noticed a look pass over my daughter's face -- a diabolical look. Two seconds later I witnessed her scoop up a cup of water and pour it over her unsuspecting play date's head.

The scene reminded me of a recent book I read, "NutureShock," which said that one of the biggest indicators of how your child might behave with a future sibling is his or her relationships with friends. Children who had good relationships with their peers were the kids who had a productive rapport with siblings that materialized later on. So red flags might run along the lines of whether your child bosses other children around, is a notorious toy grubber, or likes to carry out experiments, like what would happen if I dumped this cup of ice cold water over my friend's head?

How often do kids fight?
My daughter doesn't have any future siblings on the horizon, and she's only 2 and half and still trying to work out the play date thing, but if she were to have a sibling I might have a better idea of what to expect when a fight broke out. According to "NatureShock" authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, "Observational studies have determined that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 time per hour, on average," which adds up to 10 minutes of fighting per hour. Even more illuminating, only one out of eight disputes ends nicely, "the other seven times, the siblings merely withdrew, usually after the older child has bullied or intimidated the younger."  

My older brother and I are proof that epic fighting, including devastating verbal abuse, biting, scratching and the occasional tumble-down-the-hill-while-hitting-each-other can one day evolve into a pleasant adult relationship. But at what price? To this day my mom still flinches when she overhears my brother and me debating a topic, knowing that at any moment it could devolve into name-calling and arm punching.

Our long-suffering parents were heartbroken to see their kids act like maniacs toward each other. (Unfortunately food fights were common, too.) The signal that my mom was at her wit's end was when she would announce that she was going to put us in a closet and "see who comes out alive!" Normally we'd pipe down at that prospect, but I remember one time saying, "OK, let's go!" thinking, "Those Dungeons and Dragons dice will be mine."  

The surprising reason why sibs fight
According to "NurtureShock," siblings aren't fighting to gain the attention of their parents or even trying to get a foothold in the hierarchy of household politics; it really isn't about rivalry. It all boils down to a perception of "mine" and "yours." Like when I was willing to risk life and limb over D&D dice, and my brother was protecting what he deemed as his turf from his meddling little sister.

It's a bit of a relief knowing that most sib fighting is a result of kids not wanting to share. But it's also a surprise -- it doesn't seem like something so simple should be a cause for such emotional fireworks. But for a lot of brothers and sisters, the good times outweigh the bad times, which leads to a healthy sibling relationship later on in life.

The problem is when kids don't get to enjoy enough good times to create any kind of long term affection for each other. This is also true for kids who may not fight, but aren't connecting on a significant positive level.  Bronson and Merriman claim that "siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cool and distant long term."

So what to do?

The playing cure
Bronson and Merriman aren't prescriptive writers, so they're not going to tell you what to do. But they will tell you that Dr. Laurie Kramer, Associate Dean at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has an interesting program called "More Fun with Sisters and Brothers," in which the main idea isn't to master conflict mediation skills, but to teach kids to enjoy playing with their siblings.

The program is set up like a camp, and kids play with puppets. They're visited by aliens from the planet Xandia who want to learn how to have fun together. They play board games, create art together, dance and rap. The point is that brothers and sisters have to figure out a way to engage in fantasy play with each other. And this is where sharing and communication come in -- they're sharing a fantasy, and they're sharing the toys in the fantasy world.

If there's a conflict they're coached to "stop, think and talk." They role play and draw "facial expressions on paper plate masks, then listen to stories and hold up the masks that correspond to how each child in the story would be feeling." This is an effort to help the kids to empathize so that they can move on in their play and have fun together.

If only my parents had had such a program at their disposal during the campaign of terror my brother and I waged. Though part of me wonders if we would have broken the program; it would've been quite a feat to convince us that we could play together and actually enjoy each other's company.

Thankfully my stinky brother blossomed into a wonderful human being, and we had just the right amount of good times to be able to appreciate each other. Which is pretty cool, because Stinky is one of the biggest sources of laughter and joy in my life. Something my 7-year-old self never, ever would have anticipated.

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