Kids need conflict: Sibling rivalry teaches valuable lessons

sibling rivalry (©Christian Carter/iStockphoto)
Photo © 2008 Christian Carroll/iStockphoto

Sibling rivalry is a tough issue to tackle. Goodness knows, I’m not the one to preach on this subject! My two kids behave like they are both the alpha eaglet, pecking at each other all day and night—probably with the very goal of eliminating the competition.

Most of my research on the subject while I was writing Tending the Flame: the Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting pointed to the concept that sibling rivalry is rarely about the issue being squabbled about. It is actually a power struggle that manifests because children don’t feel comfortable asking directly for affection or affirmation when they need it.

This makes sense to me, as my two kids seem to get along just fine when I’m not around. But when I am, it’s a no-holds barred verbal wrestling match with plenty of trash talk. Other parents recognize that this pick-pick-picking at one another often takes a physical turn. As a child myself, I distinctly remember being bitten by my younger sister. When I complained to my mother, she told me to “bite her back.”

Perhaps not the best advice, even if the intention was to teach me how to resolve my own conflicts with my sister. However, it was also in conflict with another lesson I’d learned from my parents, which was that since I was the oldest, it was my job to protect and take care of my younger sister.

Now along comes fellow Unitarian Universalist parent and author Heather Shumaker with her book, It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (Tarcher/Penguin, 2012). Her “Ten Steps for Mediating Conflict with Kids” is comprehensive and highlights different strategies to use, including what to do when you witness a conflict but don’t catch the way it started. Shumaker suggests that kids need conflict because children “learn lifelong skills—including positive assertiveness, independence and mediation skills for managing future conflicts.”

I firmly believe that the home can be a training ground for teaching children the concepts of conflict mediation that they can then take out into the greater world, and Heather’s 10 Steps is a great resource toward making that a reality. Some of her other “renegade rules” are also just really great ideas—letting kids have plenty of free time just to play, for example, or recognizing that children who play with toy weapons are simply engaging in one more type of dramatic role-play. If we are able to step away from our own adult perspectives and biases, then we can start to understand that, for children, weapon play does not mean the same thing as it does to us. We need to be much more concerned about how kids act in real life than during playtime.

If we are able to help children learn peaceful ways to resolve real-life conflicts (like sibling rivalry) and ways to cope with their sometimes overwhelming emotions, then we can raise children who learn healthy responses to challenging conflicts.

Published by

Michelle Richards

Michelle Richards is a credentialed religious educator and religious education consultant for the Central Midwest District. Previously, she was the director of religious education for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart, Indiana, for seven years, and the chair of the Central Midwest District's Religious Education Committee. Richards is the author of "Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children" and "Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting," both from Skinner House Books.

  • Norrie Lenore Gall

    So glad I read this, I picked up “it’s not okay to share” and love it…I have been struggling with how to avoid intervening (or how to deal with others intervening in what seems like valuable peer education), and I am looking forward to using Shumaker’s suggestions..

  • Mandie Fitch McGlynn

    I can’t reconcile the title of that book (It’s ok not to share) with my communist heart. :) Also weapon play, fine (swords and clubs and pretend ninja moves), but not gun play. I just can’t allow it. Guns are not toys and I believe gun play unravels every bit of the safety training we’ve given our children about guns (they’re not toys, don’t point them at something you don’t intend to kill or seriously injure, even if they’re unloaded, etc.). We are a gun-owning family, so this issue is very important to us. But I think families who don’t own guns and don’t teach their children gun safety are even more at risk in allowing their children to play with guns, even toy ones. All that said, I can’t wait to pick up “Tending the Flame.”