Does Healthy Sibling Rivalry Exist?

Learning how to manage when brothers and sisters compete.

By Dinah Lee-Phua | 15 November, 2016

Every child is different and even each twin is different. I can testify to this fact having raised a pair of twins who are now 20-years-old.

As parents, we play a critical part in heightening or minimising sibling rivalry. Of course, there are some children who are naturally more competitive and they enter the ring of rivalry regardless.

Over the years, I’ve found several approaches helpful in mitigating any rivalry in the home. Mind you, these aren’t techniques as much as heart attitudes consistently upheld by us, as parents towards our children.

Emphasise Strength, Not Weakness
No one is without talent in one area or another. In the Singaporean context, people may lean towards favouring those with better academic results. However, we should go beyond celebrating our children’s academic achievements and discover their unique smarts or simply celebrate them for who they are.

I recall their primary school days when my son was appointed a prefect and his sibling began reacting in ways to draw our attention. That was a wake-up call for me to remember and to always remind her that she is endowed with other strengths, like her creativity.

Focusing on one’s weaknesses often exacerbates the rivalry because no two children are gifted the same, making it an unfair comparison. Emphasise the different strengths of your children, be it in the arena of academics, sports, the arts, or anything else. Everyone is unique, and so it follows that no one would have exactly the same level of talent in exactly the same area of life.

Grow Humility and Confidence
In sibling rivalry, when one sibling does better than the other, he or she typically grows arrogant. But if he or she does not measure up to their sibling, their confidence plummets. It is then of paramount importance that humility and esteem are not so easily affected by whether one sibling does better than another. The principle is that neither success nor failure defines us, and neither do they define others.

The process of building character – specifically, humility is a tricky one. It has taken me many conversations with my children to shift our focus from success or failure to how these experiences are shaping them individually.

As parents, we must ensure that our children hear this - and know personally that they are loved regardless of how big or small their achievements are. Siblings must know that their sibling is not a competitor, but a loved one, and that what they need to maintain is not a competition, but a relationship.

Celebrate Effort, Not Achievement
It seems only natural to focus on achievements in a results-oriented environment. But this is actually counterproductive.

For instance, one child achieves a lot but is lazy; whilst another child achieves less but has truly tried his or her hardest - if the one rewarded is the slothful child, it will incentivise even more laziness. If, despite all the effort put in, the hardworking child is disregarded due to a lack of achievement, it will negatively incentivise him to give up.

I’ve found that it requires deliberate effort to celebrate and recognise the effort of the seemingly “less successful” child. But this move is of utmost importance to shore them up in perseverance instead of wallowing in self-pity or jealousy of the more successful sibling.

Encourage Healthy Rivalry
Like conflict, rivalry doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Good rivalry is the kind that does not tear one down, but builds one up.

The words ‘sibling rivalry’ have a negative connotation probably due to our preconceived notion of what it entails. But we could make rivalry a source of growth and encouragement between siblings instead of a source of conflict and bitterness.

Healthy rivalry between siblings means that they nudge each other forward instead of trying to merely get ahead. In our family, one child is more analytical and spurs his sibling to read extensively while the other child, who is better in people skills, constantly challenges the other to be more sensitive towards others and better resolve conflicts. They then learn to help others in areas they’re more proficient in while seeking help in areas where they need improvement.

If I had one cardinal rule in managing sibling rivalry, it would be this - never elevate and/or compare one child’s strength against the other child’s weakness. We hold the key to help our children celebrate one another’s differences and talents; and in the process find such contentment to pursue what each can do best!

© 2016 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

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