Sibling rivalry is at its worst when there are inadequate or inconsistently applied rules that govern the interaction between kids—when the “lawbreakers” do not get caught, or, if apprehended, are set free without standing trial. It is important to understand that laws in a society are established and enforced for the purpose of protecting people from each other. Likewise, a family is a mini society with the same requirements for property rights and physical protection.
For purposes of illustration, suppose that I live in a community where there is no established law. Police officers do not exist and there are no courts to whom disagreements can be appealed. Under those circumstances, my neighbor and I can abuse each other with impunity. He can take my lawn mower and throw rocks through my windows, while I steal the peaches from his favorite tree and dump my leaves over his fence. This kind of mutual antagonism has a way of escalating day by day, becoming ever more violent with the passage of time. When permitted to run its natural course, as in early American history, the end result can be feudal hatred and murder.
Individual families are similar to societies in their need for law and order. In the absence of justice, “neighboring” siblings begin to assault one another. The older child is bigger and tougher, which allows her to oppress her younger brothers and sisters. But the junior member of the family is not without weapons of his own. He can strike back by breaking the toys and prized possessions of the older sibling and interfering when friends are visiting. Mutual hatred then erupts like an angry volcano, spewing its destructive contents on everyone in its path.
Too often, however, children who appeal to their parents for intervention are left to fight it out among themselves. Mom or Dad may not have sufficient disciplinary control to enforce their judgments. In other families, they are so exasperated with constant bickering among siblings that they refuse to get involved. In still others, they require an older child to live with an admitted injustice “because your sister is smaller than you.” Thus, they tie the older child’s hands and render him utterly defenseless against the mischief of his younger sibling. And in the many families today in which both parents work, the children may be busily disassembling each other at home with no supervision whatsoever.
I will say it again: One of the most important responsibilities of parents is to establish an equitable system of justice and a balance of power at home. There should be reasonable rules that are enforced fairly for each member of the family. For purposes of illustration, let me list the beginnings of a set of “laws” on which to build a protective shield around each child. They can never be implemented perfectly, but this is a place to start:
• A child is never allowed to make fun of the other in a destructive way. Period! This must be an inflexible rule with no exceptions.
• Each child’s room is his or her private territory. There must be locks on both doors, and permission to enter is a revocable privilege. (Families with more than one child in each bedroom can allocate available living space for each youngster.)
• As much as possible, the older child is not permitted to tease the younger child.
• The younger child is forbidden from harassing the older child.
• The children are not required to play with each other when they prefer to be alone or with other friends.
• Parents mediate any genuine conflict as quickly as possible, being careful to show impartiality and extreme fairness.
As with any system of justice, this plan requires (1) respect for leadership of the parents, (2) willingness of the parents to mediate, (3) reasonable consistency over time, and (4) occasional enforcement or punishment. When this approach is accomplished with love, the emotional tone of the home can be changed from one of hatred to (at least) tolerance.
From The Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James C. Dobson
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