SIBLING RIVALRY
AND WHY EVERYONE
(AND NOT ONLY PARENTS)
SHOULD CARE ABOUT THIS AGE-OLD PROBLEM

by
William Antonio Boyle, Ph.D.

Part 3 (Back to Part 2)

(Back to Index-Part 1)

[En español]


WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

1.  In the first place, when the family is expecting a new baby, the parents should begin early to talk and to convince their older children as to how important the children's help is going to be with the caring of their new baby brother or sister. The parents should also discuss the children's considerable responsibilities as older brothers or sisters.  They should mention that these responsibilities will change with the baby's age, and that they will continue for the rest of the siblings' lives.

2.  The parents should plan to allow sufficient time between the births of each of their children so as to try to avoid having more than one child needing the same kind of care and attention at one time.  Also, as was previously mentioned, if the older child is still very young, he or she will not yet have the capacity to understand the parents' explanations with respect to the efforts needed for the care of the new baby.  A child that is still too young will not be able to understand and respond to the new baby's arrival in a reasoned manner, but will tend to respond in a purely emotional negative way.  It should be noted that Jewish law permitted an abortion if the mother already had a child that was less than two years old.

3.  Parents should carefully observe their children, and continually explain to the older siblings the necessity that the parents have of their help with the care of the younger ones.

4.  Parents should NEVER demonstrate a special preference for one of their children (of course, they certainly can and will HAVE such a liking or preference - the damage only occurs if the child's other siblings become aware of this preference).  Giving preferential treatment to one of their children is one of the most TOXIC attitudes that parents can have with respect to their families.  This attitude will actively cause the development of rivalry among their children.  EVERY child has nagging suspicions that his parents love another one of his brothers or sisters more than they love him.  There cannot be any good reason for parents to encourage their children's feelings of rivalry by confirming such suspicions (See also Sibling Rivalry and the Family Favorite).

5.  Another common mistake among parents is when they tend to over-identify themselves with one (or more) of their children and to satisfy that child's every wish or "to give that child everything that the parent didn't have as a child."  This parental attitude will make it difficult for the child to grow out of his initial self-centered stage.  It will also obstruct the development of his or her tendencies toward cooperative behavior.  More than 200 years ago the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

"Do you know a sure way to make an unhappy child?  It is to accustom that child to getting everything that he or she wants.  Because, as the child grows, so will its demands.  Sooner or later the child's wishes will become larger than our capacity to satisfy them, and this unexpected denial will cause him more torment than the lack of that thing he demanded of us."
And, from that pain will come hate and loathing.
Both extremes, of too little or of too much satisfaction of their wishes, are harmful to the emotional development of children.

This mistake is also frequently committed by parents of an only child, or with the oldest child, (during the time he or she is still an only child) and is also often committed by parents or caregivers who were abused or neglected when THEY were children - They are "not really" giving their child this extra love and attention, they are really giving THEMSELVES this extra love and attention (so it really is only a misguided form of parental self-love). These parents tend to feel that the only thing that their children need is LOVE. The problem is that children that receive this kind of "overabundant" love and attention, without sufficient moral and ethical life examples and instruction, tend not to grow out of the childish self-centered stage - they may grow up to be VERY intelligent and creative adults, but they will tend to use their talents ONLY for their OWN gratification - they may also become manipulative and abusive, simply because they have not developed the mental structures to empathize with the suffering and harm they may be causing on others (See Readers' Letters, and also Note 2, Abuse of Power).

6.  Another very toxic attitude that parents have with towards their children, is showing them APPROVAL for harmful or destructive behaviors, such as a lack of respect towards the other parent, or towards any of the child's siblings or any other person.

7.  Because of the previously mentioned reasons, parents should not leave their children alone at home, with the older ones caring for the younger ones, if the oldest child is still less than twelve years old.

8.  Parents need to plan and carry out frequent "family activities" with all of their children.  During these, parents should try to avoid games and contests in which one of the children "wins" and the others "lose."  They should instead look for activities and pastimes in which they ALL "win" if they cooperate with one another.

9.  Each child's temperament is a matter of luck.  Nature selects it at random, without asking the parents' opinion.  So then, some children are born with an abrasive temperament, are strong-willed, or may be easily angered or irritated.  On the other hand, there are other children that are naturally sweet-tempered, mild-mannered, docile and obedient (The three components of a child's temperament are usually considered to be emotional intensity, activity level, and sociability).  Parents or would-be parents have to be prepared for the fact that EACH of their children will come with his or her OWN temperament, and they have to be prepared to rear and educate each one of their children working with THAT particular child's innate temperament.  What is important for the development of that child as a true human being is not the child's temperament, but his or her character.  Character is the result of the child's innate temperament plus the rearing given by his or her parents.

10.  Above all, parents need to spend TIME with EACH ONE of their children.  Without asking for their consent, we brought them into this world - We need to take the time to have an active part in the shaping of their minds, to share our life experiences with them, and to become a friend to them (And, no - buying them material things instead of spending time with them will not make you their friend. Also, being their friend does NOT mean you stop being their parent or stop being the source of moral authority within the family).  If we do not take this time, we definitely need to ask ourselves this question:  Just WHAT was our purpose in bringing them into this world?

Note: See also Additional reading - Books on Parenting and on Sibling Rivalry.

WHAT THE COMMUNITY CAN DO

         There are several ways in which the community can help reduce the incidence of the many problems brought about by inadequate parenting, including sibling rivalry.  The community's help is specially necessary for those families that have suffered different traumas due to social or natural disasters.  The community also has a definite interest in breaking the vicious cycle of ignorance that keeps these problems recurring generation after generation.

         One way in which communities can help with this is including the previously discussed concepts in elementary and high school study programs, within such courses as Education for Family Life, or Social Studies.  This should begin in early grades, with simple and general concepts, advancing towards detailed discussions on causes and consequences for high school students. Sex education is a necessary but certainly not a sufficient preparation for future family life.

         Because of these same reasons, perhaps these concepts should be included in mandatory counseling sessions or courses for couples applying for marriage licenses.  And since not all children are born to married couples, these concepts could also be included in similar counseling sessions or courses for all women who are pregnant or who have recently given birth, possibly as part of pre- or postnatal social or medical assistance. If possible, these courses should be evaluated, with some kind of a (possibly monetary) small reward for successful completion.   (For example, the Magna Systems company distributes a series of instructional videos that could be adapted for such courses.  See also Additional reading - Books on Parenting and on Sibling Rivalry).

         This also means that national or regional social and economic development plans and programs should be re-examined as to whether these include adequate support for the well-being of the family.  Such programs usually address economic growth, employment, nutrition and/or health.  However, if these plans make inadequate or no provisions for long-term support for the well-being of the family (e.g., for time for parents to spend with their children, and for guidance on how to help their children develop into well-adjusted, productive members of the community) then they are, in the long run, worthless.

        Without adequate support for the family, these programs are worthless because, even if they attain their stated economic, health or nutrition goals, their end result will be families with an appearance of abundance of material possessions, and apparently healthy and well-nourished children.  But, if these children have not developed adequate affective bonds to their families and their communities, they will lack an inner vision of a positive purpose in life and become social malcontents that easily fall prey to drugs, gangs, or other self- or socially destructive behaviors - surely not a desirable goal, either for the community or for the individual.  However, this depressing situation appears to be occurring with increasing frequency in communities all over the world.

        Economists seem to believe that improvements in "productivity" will solve most social problems, as when productivity is improved, more value is produced in the same amount of time, less workers are needed for the same amount of service or product, and so the salaries of the workers can be raised. However, these economists seem to forget or overlook the fact that when productivity is improved, less workers are needed - as a consequence, some or many workers are let go (i.e., are fired, i.e, "downsized") and, yes, the workers that remain may have better salaries, but they are under the continuous (unspoken or not) threat that, if their "productivity" does not continue improving, they too will be let go - so essentially, these workers are at work all the time ("24/7") and therefore, they do not have the time for adequate parenting - their children will be morally underdeveloped, although these parents will usually try to overcompensate for their lack of parenting with an excess of material things, expensive clothes, toys, and other gadgets.

        On the other hand, the workers that are let go usually are only able to find less-well-paying jobs - they may need to work at several jobs just to make ends meet, so again these parents will not have the time for adequate parenting... Or, with inadequate incomes, their children may lose their respect for them, and so their parenting becomes ineffective ("Why can't you buy me those expensive tennis shoes? - Why can't you buy me that expensive electronic gadget?") - It is actually a wonder that young people in our present-day society don't have even more serious drug and gang problems! (Another matter is that, if less and less people have adequate incomes in a society, just who is going to purchase all the goods and services that these companies with improved "productivity" are selling? If these companies have less and less sales, what is going to happen to the stock and to the stockholders of these companies...? - Hello? - Can anybody see what happened to the Ford Motor Co.? - Is your company next?)

        This is why each community needs to work on developing and encouraging work and employment systems that allow parents to spend enough time with their children, and also by the development and implementation of effective social work and childcare systems (See, e.g., Additional reading - Books on more family-friendly forms of social organization).  One should remember that, in the degree in which these problems are not solved, it is us and our descendants that will have to live with their consequences.

THE TRANSCENDENTAL SOCIAL IMPORTANCE OF SIBLING RIVALRY

         What has been said so far gives an idea of the importance and consequences of sibling rivalry within each family, and of its negative effects, which may last for several generations.  However, sibling rivalry may also have transcendental social consequences, whose pernicious and persistent negative effects have permeated human history and continue to manifest themselves in the present.  We begin by postulating that the principal source of all moral evil (i.e., any harm or injury caused to human beings by human beings) is the abuse of power or authority (in contrast to harm caused by natural accident or misfortune, without any person's willful action; see Note 2, Abuse of Power).

         Throughout history, we humans have innately recognized this, and continually lamented and deplored the abuse of power.  This being so, WHY does abuse of power continue to manifest itself? Where do people learn to abuse power?  Where do they learn that "might makes right"? (Or, perhaps more importantly, where did they NOT learn not to abuse their power?). The place where it is most natural to suppose that we learned (or did not learn) these things is within our early family environment, through the constant and repeated interaction with our parents and our siblings - the family environment is the source of our most enduring patterns of thought and action, and of our moral values (What things do we teach our children to value? What things to admire? What things to love? What things to hate or despise? - Or do we just let them learn these things from the TV or from minimum-wage daycare employees?).

         So, what does this mean with respect to abuse of power?

         What this means is that some human beings learn to abuse their power directly through unsupervised or unchecked sibling rivalry situations in their early family environment - others will learn to abuse it indirectly from these preceeding ones, in the form of the abuse they receive from their parents or other persons in positions of authority, and so on.  We can see that this is how the pool of abusers in the community is continually replenished.

         Because of the nature of the human mental structure, to the young child, might IS right.  To very young children, whatever means are available to satisfy their wishes are automatically justified.  Young children have no sense of "abuse of power" as evil.  If within the family there is no parental moral authority to the contrary, that is what the older siblings will learn, and that is also what the younger siblings will learn.  And, when these children grow up and have families of their own, that is what, in turn, THEIR children will learn from them.  So then, this pernicious effect of sibling rivalry is also transmitted from generation to generation.  And, if someone has no sense of moral wrongness in the abuse of power towards members of his or her own family, it can be expected that that is how they will feel towards the rest of the people in their social environment.

         What has previously been described can be considered as an "inadvertent" or "accidental" mechanism or sequence for the origin of the abusive personality.  Then, there can also be the profoundly pathological case of parents, families or social groups, that actively and intentionally teach their children that abuse of power is a desirable moral value, i.e., an acceptable form of resolving conflicts or of imposing one's will on others. If one accepts that abuse of power is the prime source of moral evil, then active teaching of this kind should certainly be considered a crime against humanity.   In light of this, I suggest that the most important values one can teach young children are, one, a lifelong love of learning, and two, a loathing for any form of abuse of power.

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER WITH A STRANGER

         Having read so far, many readers will say:  "All this is very well, but it has nothing to do with me.  I try my best to educate my kids and never have had any serious problems with them.   They love and help each other.  The children of other families?  Well, that's somebody else's problem, not mine."

         These readers seem to forget that THEIR children and THEIR families do not exist alone in the world.  Some day, necessarily as they grow and leave into adult life, their children will have to come in contact with the outside world, and will have to interact and coexist with the children of those OTHER families.  If those others suffer from serious mental problems because of inadequate family rearing, the results of such contacts can easily be tragic or fatal.

         A recent example is the case of Ennis Cosby, the son of the famous and wealthy comedian and educator, Bill Cosby.  Ennis was an almost perfect son, well-educated, nice-mannered and considerate with others.  He was about to successfully finish his university studies, and he was the pride and joy of his parents and all his family.  But one night in a Los Angeles freeway, he had to stop his car to change a flat tire, and there he had a chance encounter with a stranger, Mikail Markhasev, and in that encounter he lost his life.  Why couldn't Markhasev stop his thrust to murder Ennis Cosby?  We shall probably never know.  However, it is also probable that if Markhasev had had an adequate upbringing and family life, he would have at least had the bases to contain his murderous impulse.

         So then, when we think about to whom we owe our "brotherly love," we necessarily have to begin with those with whom we share our mother, father, family, or upbringing.  However, both the Bible and science assure us that all human beings that live upon this earth have descended from one and the same mother.  Then, if we really have an interest in the present and future well-being of our "true" sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, this may be an appropriate moment to begin to think again about what REALLY is important in this life, and on the wisdom and profound meaning of those ancient questions from the Old and New Testaments:

 - "Am I my brother's keeper?" ("Do we have an obligation to attend to the well-being of our brothers and sisters?"), and,

 - "Who is my neighbor?" ("Who are those to whom we have a moral duty to consider as our brothers and sisters?").

* * *

W.A. Boyle, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA - 7 April 1999.


For further reading:
-David M. Feldman, 1998.
Birth Control in Jewish Law: Marital Relations, Contraception, and Abortion as Set Forth in the Classic Texts of Jewish Law. Jason Aronson Publishers.
(With special thanks to Prof. Ann Hibner Koblitz, Arizona State University).

-Jane G. Goldberg, 1993.
The Dark Side of Love; The Positive Role of Our Negative Feelings - Anger, Jealousy and Hate. Putnam.
[A truly extraordinary book - Highly recommended!]

-Frank J. Sulloway, 1996.
Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. Pantheon Books.

-The Bible.

Additional reading - Books and Links on Sibling Rivalry, Parenting


Readers' letters:.

Sibling Rivalry - Is it really that important? - News Reporter's Questions.
No siblings, no rivalry?
Is all power abuse of power?
Aspects of legal interest.
Adult sibling rivalry.
Are there documented cases of the psychological effects of birth spacing?
Does sibling rivalry in infancy promote later success in life?



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The author is the oldest (by 8 years) of four siblings. He lives in Washington DC, USA.

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Copyright © 1999-2009, All rights reserved, by William Antonio Boyle.
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