Do you want to reduce sibling fighting? Try this: Your kids don’t have to share and they don’t have to play together.
When I share these guidelines with parents they are often surprised. We want our children to be generous and learn how to share. We want our children to be kind and inclusive.
The way to get there? Help them preserve their own space and autonomy. Respect their rights to decide what happens with their possessions and play with something til they are done.
Imagine you’ve been waiting all day to have a nice hot bath and dive into that novel you’ve been wanting to read. The kids are in bed and you’re all ready to hop in the bath. Just as you are about to get in, your partner shows up in the bathroom and starts insisting you come downstairs and do something with him. You say you don’t want to, but he says if you don’t you’re not being nice. How would you feel?
Or maybe you just got a new shirt and you can’t wait to wear it. You wear it to the office and everyone compliments you on it. Then your boss comes up to you and says that his assistant really admired your shirt and that tomorrow you need to bring it for her to wear. It’s her turn. How would you feel?
I know both of these scenarios seem really far-fetched, but that’s what we do to children every day.
Maybe your son is playing in his room, and his little brother wants to join in. He says “No! I don’t want him to play! He doesn’t know the game and he’ll wreck it.” Most of us would insist that he let his brother play.
Or maybe your daughter has a new skipping rope and her big brother wants a turn. Most of us would say, “Okay, sweetie, you’ve used it for long enough. It’s your brother’s turn now.”
Forcing a child to let their sibling play when they don’t want to makes them feel resentful of their sibling. It reinforces the idea that their sibling really does wreck everything and does NOT contribute to the good will between them. Not only that, but you must really love their sibling more: “I said no but Mom is giving my brother what he wants anyway. She ALWAYS sides with him.”
Some other not great side effects? They feel powerless and disrespected because you are not listening to them. This can lead to power struggles in other areas- “I’ll show her who’s boss!”- or get in the way of resilience- “I won’t be able to do it, why should I even try?” When you don’t listen, it teaches your child to doubt themselves and their ability to be in charge of their own bodies.
We always want to try for inclusion first. “Is there a way you can include your brother? He loves playing with you! Can you give him his own stack of blocks to play with?” It is wonderful to encourage inclusion, help siblings learn to appreciate each other, and find ways to get along.
Sometimes, though, kids don’t want the stress of a potential tower wrecking sibling. Some kids are introverts and need time alone every day. Some kids just want to know that you will listen to them and respect their desires.
In these cases, we have to respect their autonomy. When we have control over ourselves and our belongings, we can give them freely without anxiety and without the need to fight for what is ours.
Try this instead: listen and respect your child’s desire for autonomy.
Help them preserve their time and space. “I’m sorry, sweetie, your brother doesn’t want to play right now. Maybe later he will, but right now let’s go and find something else to do.” You might have to help the left-out sibling deal with their big feelings of disappointment. That’s okay! (More on that below.)
What about sharing?
In theory, forced sharing teaches your child to be generous. In reality, forced sharing teaches your child to hold on tightly to things, for at any moment they could be snatched away. (And again, makes them feel powerless, disrespected and resentful!)
What does teach generosity? Researcher Nancy Eisenberg found that prosocial behaviour (‘voluntary behavior that aims to help another’) develops when children have the experience of choosing to share and experiencing how good it makes them feel to be generous. Please note: this happens when children share of their own free will. You can help the process along by drawing their attention to the results of their actions: “Look at your sister! She’s so happy that you shared your toy with her!”
What about ‘turns’? A common suggestion is to make sure everyone gets a turn and you use a timer. “You can have it for 10 minutes, and then your brother gets it for 10 minutes.” That’s a bit better than arbitrarily deciding when their turn is over. But put yourself in their shoes: it would be really hard to relax, enjoy yourself, and do the work of childhood (play!) if you are hearing the seconds tick by. (Plus, do you really want to be in charge of that?!)
Try this instead: your child’s turn lasts until they are done playing. Period.
They can play with a toy as long as they want to. They can’t ‘reserve’ it for later, but as long as they are actively playing, their sibling has to wait.
Lots of parents ask me, “What about toys that belong to both of them?” Children should have some things that are JUST theirs and some things that belong to everyone in the family. If they have birthday presents and treasured possessions, for example, it’s okay if they NEVER let their sibling play with it. They’ll also need a place to keep their things where their sibling can’t get them, like a chest with a lock or a high shelf or drawer. Toys that belong to the family can be played with until a child is done with them, as I outlined above.
What about playdates? Let your child put away anything special that they don’t want to share. Anything that is left out is fair game. The ‘long turn’ rule doesn’t apply at playdates. They can take ‘short turns’ when friends are over. Be prepared to help them navigate this!
When your children get used to this new rule, they will appreciate the new “long turns” policy and know what to expect. If they still constantly and only want what their sibling is playing with? It’s not about the toy. (Actually it is very often not about the toy.) Are you doing Special Time with each child? Are you being Switzerland and finding Win/Win solutions? Has your child had a chance to get the “chip” off their shoulder?
Be prepared for big feelings! It can be VERY hard for the child whose turn it isn’t to wait. That’s okay! You are there to help them through their feelings. “Darling, I know! It’s so hard to wait! You want to play with the red truck so much! Brother will give it to you when he’s done.” Bonus: You are not only supporting your disappointed child in the moment but also building emotional resilience. When you are calm and welcome their difficult feelings, you are teaching them that they can handle anything.
This post is a bonus to a Stop Sibling Fights series. The first post is here.
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 10, 13, and 17). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com