Sibling rivalry is not new, of course. It was responsible for the first murder on record (when Cain killed Abel), and has been represented in virtually every two-child (or more) family from that time to this. The underlying source of this conflict is old-fashioned jealousy and competition between children. Marguerite and Willard Beecher, writing in their book Parents on the Run, expressed the inevitability of this struggle as follows:
It was once believed that if parents would explain to a child that he was having a little brother or sister, he would not resent it. He was told that his parents had enjoyed him so much that they wanted to increase their happiness. This was supposed to avoid jealous competition and rivalry. It did not work. Why should it? Needless to say, if a man tells his wife he has loved her so much that he now plans to bring another wife into the home to “increase his happiness,” she would not be immune to jealousy. On the contrary, the fight would just begin-in exactly the same fashion as it does with children!1
If jealousy is so common, then how can parents minimize the natural antagonism which children feel for their siblings? The first step is to avoid circumstances which compare them unfavorably with each other. Lecturer Bill Gothard has stated that the root of all feelings of inferiority is comparison. I agree. The question is not “How am I doing?” It is “How am I doing compared with John or Steven or Marion?” The issue is not how fast can I run, but who crosses the finish line first. A boy does not care how tall he is; he is vitally interested in “who is tallest.” Each child systematically measures himself against his peers, and is tremendously sensitive to failure within his own family.
Accordingly, parents should guard against comparative statements which routinely favor one child over another. This is particularly true in three areas.
- Physical attractiveness. Children are extremely sensitive about the matter of physical attractiveness and body characteristics. It is highly inflammatory to commend one child at the expense of the other. Suppose, for example, that Sharon is permitted to hear the casual remark about her sister, “Betty is sure going to be a gorgeous girl.” The very fact that Sharon was not mentioned will probably establish the two girls as rivals. If there is a significant difference in beauty between the two, you can be assured that Sharon has already concluded, “‘Yeah, I’m the ugly one.” When her fears are then confirmed by her parents, resentment and jealousy are generated.
- Intelligence. It is not uncommon to hear parents say in front of their children, “I think the younger boy is actually brighter than his brother.” Adults find it difficult to comprehend how powerful that kind of assessment can be in a child’s mind. Even when the comments are unplanned and are spoken routinely, they convey how a child is “seen” within his family. We are all vulnerable to that bit of evidence.
- Talents and abilities. Children (and especially boys) are extremely competitive with regard to athletic abilities. Those who are slower, weaker, and less coordinated than their brothers are rarely able to accept “second best” with grace and dignity. Most parents recognize that each of their children are created with unique talents and abilities, but children are still prone to compare their skills with a sibling or another child.
Am I suggesting, then, that parents eliminate all aspects of individuality within family life or that healthy competition should be discouraged? Definitely not. I am saying that in matters relative to beauty, brains, and athletic ability, each child should know that in his parents’ eyes, he is respected and has equal worth with his siblings.
Praise and criticism at home should be distributed as evenly as possible, although some children will inevitably be more successful in the outside world. And finally, we should remember that children do not build fortresses around strengths — they construct them to protect weakness. Thus, when a child begins to brag and boast and attack his siblings, he is revealing the threats he feels at that point. Our sensitivity to those signals will help minimize the potential for jealousy within our children.