(Lauren Knight)

I watch as my middle child, now 5 years old and quickly closing in on 6, climbs to the top of the tetherball pole at our neighborhood playground for the first time and tags the top with his hand, a wide, proud smile spreading across his face. Only a year before, he had gazed up longingly as his oldest brother did the same thing. That summer he could only shimmy a few inches up before sliding back down, dejected and convinced that he would never make it to the top.

Now, far below him, his 3-year-old brother gazes up, the same look of admiration on his face. The youngest brother climbs, a look of determination on his face, pulling with his arms, pushing with his legs, until he is halfway up the pole, then, content with his progress (or perhaps slightly scared), he slides back down to hugs and cheers from this older brothers. But just to make sure he knows his place, the middle brother says to him, “Sorry, you’re not in the climbing club since you didn’t reach the top.”

There is a part of me that sees the value in this kind of competition between siblings. It pushes them to be their best, to try harder and be better, to push forward and keep reaching. But another part of me feels the heartbreak of inadequacy. To compare a younger sibling to an older one and expect the rules and abilities to be the same just doesn’t seem fair. My husband settles on a compromise and suggests that our youngest son can be “a junior climbing club member.” All three seem happy with this and go on playing, running, jumping, and climbing until the next competition arises. It makes me wonder, is competition among siblings healthy, or just destructive?

According to Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, our society has gotten carried away with the idea that competition builds character and produces excellence; on the contrary, competition can produce some pretty negative consequences, including suppressing generosity and showing less empathy toward others. It is, quite simply, the idea that one person can succeed only if others fail. In a family environment, there is no place for this kind of attitude. A family unit functions best when there is an atmosphere of cooperation, collaboration, and support.

Though I believe some degree of competition between siblings is natural, families tend to do better when sibling rivalry is addressed and dealt with early on, as it affects their health and well being later in life. Mark Feinberg, research professor at the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, expresses the importance of cooperation among siblings: “positive sibling relationships are linked to all kinds of positive adjustment, including improved peer and romantic relationship quality, academic adjustment and success, and positive well being and mental health.” Cooperation is more than just something enjoyable to observe among our children, it helps them to communicate effectively, to trust in others, and to accept others who are different from themselves.

Here are some suggestions for creating a more collaborative, harmonious environment among siblings:

  1. Refrain from comparing and labeling siblings. Avoid language like, “Your sister is sitting still, so why can’t you?” or “You are the fastest/best/strongest/smartest.” Your children are different people with different abilities, especially if they are different ages. Comparing them to each other creates an atmosphere of competition and jealousy, not collaboration and cooperation. It is also important to refrain from labeling each child as “the artistic one” or “the athletic one,” etc., as it sends the message that each member of the family must be the best at something. Labeling children can cause more conflict if each sibling perceives one domain as “theirs,” especially if another sibling starts to encroach on that domain. Instead of saying “You’re the family artist,” try saying “Art seems to bring you a lot of joy! I love seeing you enjoy yourself.”

  1. Praise cooperative behavior and explain what cooperation means. If you value cooperation and kindness, speak up. Catch your children playing nicely and praise them for helping one another unprompted. A good source for discussing what cooperation is and why it’s important for kids and their families is this Kids’ Health site.

  1. Remind siblings that they are on the same team. Be intolerant of tattling. If one sibling seems to enjoy throwing another sibling under the proverbial bus, gently remind the child that she is on the same team as her sibling, that they will have each other for a lifetime and that it is important to support and help her family. Praise siblings when they stick up for each other and actively participate in doing the same for your spouse or partner to model the behavior (for instance, back up your spouse on a decision he or she made regarding the family).

  1. Play cooperative games as a family.Our children learn so much from us. We can set good examples of cooperation while having fun and spending time with our children by playing cooperative games such as Ball in a Blanket (each member of the family takes a corner or side of a blanket with a ball placed in the middle, then tries to toss the ball up into the air and catch it again in the blanket), Stand Up (sit back to back with a partner and link elbows, then try to stand up. Then try with a group of three, or four, or however many people there are in your family). Another great game includes working together to complete an obstacle course relay race (family members stand at different spots throughout a playground and wait for the previous member to tag their hand before completing their portion of the course — try timing each course completion and then trying to beat the family’s best time). The board game Cariboo requires cooperation amongst players to open a treasure chest. There’s also good old fashioned wall ball.

  1. Make playing together a privilege. If siblings are constantly at each other’s throats, separate them, preferably in different rooms. Explain that it is a privilege to have a brother or sister with whom to play. With enough time, boredom will set in. Reunite with caution, repeat when necessary.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at CrumbBums.

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