Sibling Rivalry: Treating Kids Fairly Versus Equally

sibling-rivalryWe’ve all been there. A couple of screaming kids (usually siblings) race to your feet and you find yourself playing referee to the latest argument. What is your typical reaction? You may have never considered how your response in these moments will impact the kids, but there are actually varying viewpoints on the best way to handle sibling rivalry.

Before sharing these viewpoints, I will tell you that my approach to this is the same as the techniques I use in counseling, parenting, and life in general. I take the information available and apply what works with my own experiences and circumstances. It’s all about balance and personal judgment for me.

Treating Kids Equally Versus Fairly

I enjoyed this post by Positive Discipline titled “Put Kids in the Same Boat.” The main idea is that you should not take sides when kids fight, because you probably do not know all the details of what happened. The author warns against creating a bully and victim mentality in the children.

Right is always a matter of opinion. What seems right to you will surely seem unfair from at least one child’s point of view. If you feel you must get involved to stop fights, don’t become judge, jury, and executioner. Instead, put them in the same boat and treat them the same. Instead of focusing on one child as the instigator, say something like, “Kids, which one of you would like to put this problem on the agenda?” or “Kids, do you need to go to your feel-good places for a while, or can you find a solution now?” or“Kids, do you want to go to separate rooms until you can find a solution or to the same room?”

The point is not who did what. The point is that you treat both children the same so one doesn’t learn victim mentality and the other doesn’t learn bully mentality. Surely, the baby won’t be traumatized by being put into her crib for few seconds. Another way to put children in the same boat is to give them both the same choice. “Would you both like to sit on my lap until you are ready to stop fighting?” Do or say whatever is comfortable for you—so long as they are treated the same.

An article on the MainStreetMom website titled “Don’t Treat Your Children Equally! Treat Them Fairly” by Ron Huxley, LMFT, takes the position that treating kids equally is impossible and can even be harmful.

Sibling rivalry often occurs because parents mistakenly believe that everyone must be treated equally. The reality is that parents cannot treat everyone equally. But they can treat everyone fairly. Fairness implies giving favors in an impartial and consistent manner. Equality, on the other hand, implies giving favors in an exact or identical manner. Very rarely can a parent give all of their children love or attention in an equal manner.

A fair family treats every one according to their individual needs and considers everyone as worthy of love and respect. Attempting to treat everyone the same actually backfires on parents, as children are not the same in body or spirit. Ironically, treating them the same would be treating them unequally! Treat your child according to their age, maturity, temperament, and the situation you find yourself in. Be fair to yourself and your child by attempting the only realistic solution: fairness.

Allowing Children to Solve Their Own Disagreements

I also want to bring up another significant approach to sibling rivalry, which is to allow children an opportunity to work out their differences and disagreements. Hands down, this will always be my first approach. If I knew what parenting philosopher first recorded this technique, I would credit them here. Encouraging the kids to try to work things out on their own teaches them problem solving and social skills, and it builds confidence.

Be sure to use your judgment on the type of problem they are having, the age and developmental levels of the kids, and whether consequences should be dealt out. You may determine that discipline for one or both children is appropriate or that treating them equally is the best approach.

A recent post by Teacher Tom titled “You Both Want This Toy” is a great illustration of how this theory works in real life. He describes how his toddlers wanted the same toy and he used the moment, even with children so young, to give them an opportunity to develop some valuable social and problem solving skills. Great read!

If this post does anything, I hope it brings awareness to the various ways you can address sibling rivalry or rivalry between friends, cousins…you get the idea. You don’t have to always punish or always solve the problem. However, keep in mind that how you choose to respond will send a message and create a learning opportunity for those kids.

If you have another approach or resource on this topic, please pass it along. With a second baby on the way, I am getting ready for a short lifetime of sibling rivalry! Being a therapist does not mean I can’t learn from all you other moms and dads out there!

Originally posted 2012-05-23 17:43:42.