Let siblings work out conflicts themselves

Q: My boys are 6 and 4. My older son prefers playing by himself, and when I require him to share with his younger brother will just quit what he is doing and go to something else. Take basketball, for example. When I suggest they take turns shooting, my 6-year-old will either quit or go get another kind of ball so he doesn’t have to share. Should I let him quit, or should I force him to share? This really bugs me, as I am not the kind of mother who will buy two of everything so they can each have their own.

A:Good for you! Buying two of everything will certainly “solve” the sharing problem in the short run, but it will also prevent your boys from ever learning to share.

I would predict that this little problem is going to work itself out eventually. The two years that separate your sons is going to narrow as they get older. From the point of view of a 6-year-old who is in school, a 4-year-old brother almost qualifies as a baby. Within a few years, however, the age difference is not going to be as significant as it now seems, and he’s probably going to become more accepting of his little brother as a playmate.

In the meantime, I advise you to leave this alone. The more you try to force or even suggest that he share, the “worse” this is likely to get. It would be good for your mental health if you were to stop feeling like you need to manage their play and leave your boys to their own devices. The likelihood is that they’ll work this out, and if they don’t, well, so be it. The fact that an older sibling doesn’t like to play with a younger one doesn’t predict future social problems.

Addendum: I’ve been recommending a “hands off” approach to sibling conflict since I began writing this newspaper column in 1976. As is the case with any parenting policy, this one is not absolute. There are sibling conflict situations that require parental intervention; when one sibling is being purposefully cruel to another who is much younger, for example. But the mere fact of an age difference does not justify parent involvement. It is not unusual for a younger sibling to trade significant pain inflicted by an older one for the reward of seeing the older one be punished. For that reason, it’s difficult at best to judge the book of sibling conflict by its cover.

More often than not, I recommend simply creating a rule that requires the children to manage their conflict such that it does not disturb the peace of the family. The rule is broken when one of the participants does anything to attract parental attention: screaming, crying, calling for help, tattling, and so on. A violation of the rule results in both kids being punished in equivalent fashion. This puts both kids in the same proverbial boat. To avoid being punished, they must learn to work things out without attracting attention.

Almost without exception, once the roles of villain and victim are no longer at issue, the sibling relationship begins to improve, as affirmed by a mom who recently sent me the following testimonial:

“Before I read your books, I was convinced that my oldest son was a bully and my other two children were victims. Reluctantly, I followed your advice and punished both kids when fighting broke out. Most of the time, I believed it was my oldest son’s fault, but I still gave them both consequences. It’s been five months now, and I keep thinking I live in a different house with a different set of kids. They almost never fight, and when they do they work it out themselves. My relationship with my oldest son has improved and he feels much better about himself. I think that in the past his siblings were figuring out ways to push his buttons so that he would get into trouble. Now he feels more valued and loved in our family. Your techniques don’t always work overnight, but I do think that this one is worth sticking with.”

To which I would only point out that in most cases, techniques that work “overnight” are rarely still working after 30 nights.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site at www.rosemond.com.