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Sibling Wars

My house has been full of the sounds of sibling rivalry from the moment my firstborn first poked his week-old baby sister and set her wailing. The rumpus has continued right through the argument I just busted up between that baby sister, now 12 years old, and her two baby sisters over who ate the muffin half she'd been saving.

Siblings have a relationship not quite like any other. Having to spend massive amounts of time with a built-in friend not of your choosing  -- and maybe very much unlike you  -- is both a unique life experience and a recipe for trouble.

Where the problems lie, and what you can do to stop (or at least slow down) the madness:

Competition

Most of us are prepared for the behavioral changes that a newborn inspires, but what do you do months and years later, when the jealousy seems to linger? Actually, kids are more sophisticated than we give them credit for: They don't expect everything to be even-steven.

Kids do monitor how their parents treat them relative to their siblings. But usually they don't get upset unless they think a different treatment is unjustified, says Katherine Jewsbury Conger, Ph.D., a family sociologist at the University of California, Davis. "My research shows that they may complain, but they also tend to acknowledge that it's fair, say, for an older child to have a later bedtime," she says.

What does bother kids, though, is if they sense their parents are spending a lot more time with one child or doing a particular activity with another sibling more often. What you can do to ease the competition:

Skip trying to treat each kid "equally." "Each child deserves treatment that's appropriate to her age and who she is," Conger says. That means you can  -- and should  -- take into account a child's personality, interests, and developmental level when you decide on anything from punishments to what activities to enroll her in.

But be fair. When one child has a gift or accomplishes something special  -- she's a Suzuki violin virtuoso, he gets straight A's, your baby learns to walk  -- be proud and congratulatory, but also be mindful of your other child's feelings. Find a way to highlight his special aptitude later in the day.

Ignore the trivial. Complaints over whose cup has more juice are bids for attention more than cries of injustice. Don't play along.

Avoid comparing your kids. It's a natural impulse, but if you must, at least do it out of earshot.

Discourage boasting. Explain the difference between being proud and being rude.

Reinforce family ties. Wendy Gunn Irvine, a mom of two in Sacramento, California, tries to subtly remind her kids about their bond. "I don't just say, 'Give Matt his toy, please.' I say, 'Give your brother his toy,'" she says.

Bickering

This incessant back-and-forthing may well be the most annoying part of family life. It's no coincidence that bickering escalates when a parent is within earshot-the point is to get your attention. One party then gets to play the wronged victim, getting even more attention. You can't intervene every time they fight  -- in some families that would be a full-time job  -- but there are things you can do to limit the bickering:

Tell them what to do instead. Kathrine Kirk of Durham, North Carolina, teaches her 2-year-old twins, Andrew and Brian, a better way to handle squabbles over toys: "I ask the grabber, 'How do you ask nicely?' and he says, 'Can I please have a turn?' The one who has the toy usually says 'Not right now' or 'In a few minutes.' Then I show the other what to do  -- either take a few deep breaths to calm down or find another toy while he waits."

Stay out of it. Give the kids a chance to sort it out, even if it means sitting in the next room pretending you can't hear them for ten minutes. Odds are they can work it out or it'll blow over. Don't go, even when you're called, as long as you can tell the cries aren't coming from a hurt child. One clue: They're accompanied by complaints ("Moooom! She won't get off the computer!").

Resist the urge to take sides if you weren't there. You risk feeding a cycle of a "bad kid" and a tattletale. Instead of focusing on what just happened, look at how it can be avoided next time. Ask questions that encourage the kids to sort it out: "What is it you want to have happen here? Why?"

Blame the problem, not the kids. For fights over TV, for example, suggest that "maybe the TV needs to take a time-out."

Turf disputes

Siblings have been shown to be on the fast track when it comes to learning about sharing and negotiating. But on a day-to-day level, woe to the child who doesn't respect his sib's stuff or turf. And what about the PlayStations and Barbie houses that must be shared?

One friend of mine color-coded everything from sippy cups to bedspreads to balls to mark each child's stuff. Another bought identical multiples of everything for her three daughters, claiming that the extra expense was worth the peace it brought, though that's not a realistic solution for everybody. What to do about the turf wars in your house:

Identify what's shared and what isn't. Allow an older kid to set up ways to keep a younger one out of certain cherished items, such as a lockbox for a diary or a high shelf for a trading-card collection.

Make sure physical turf is defined, too. Each child should have a place where she can put her own things, such as a bedroom. In a shared room, each child should have a designated shelf, dresser, and toy bin.

Use an egg timer. When kids want to play with the same toy, allow them, say, ten minutes apiece, or 30 minutes if they play together. (Be sure to make the joint time longer.)

Make them set the rules. How do they think you can handle problematic situations, like deciding which TV shows to watch?

Bossiness (by a big sib)

It's hard enough for a little guy (or girl) to have a parent or two telling him what to do all the time. To have an older kid do it, too? The injustice! Don't be surprised if you hear your little one roar "You are not the boss of me!" to a big brother or sister.

In the older child's defense, a "bossy" kid often doesn't even realize that's how she's behaving. Older siblings are often told to keep an eye on a younger child without having a very good idea of what that entails. "They get carried away in their zeal for leadership," says Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To handle it when you see your big kid getting bossy:

Clarify what you expect. Don't just say "Watch Maddie." Give your child more specific instructions: "Show Maddie how to make towers with the Legos and be sure to give her a chance to try, too, because she needs practice to learn to do it like you do."

Applaud nonbossiness: "I appreciate the way you were so patient showing your sister how to draw dogs and cats!"

Don't force friendship. Some brothers and sisters get along great, while others are oil and water. With my own kids, who-plays-best-with-whom has varied according to age and personality.

Tagging along (by a little sib)

Everything an older sib does can seem interesting to a curious, imitative younger one. After all, little kids learn by example. But it can also be annoying to have a baby trailing your every move  -- a baby whose very presence implies you're a baby yourself when you most certainly are not and don't want your visiting friends to think you are, either. "Moooom! Get him out of here!" What you can do about tagalongs:

Encourage patience. You won't do it by saying "Please be more patient," though. Instead, help your older child understand his younger sib's limits by asking him to help with babycare and talk up how many things he can do that the little guy can't.

Explain the younger sib's perspective: "He really wants to be like you." "She looks up to you."

Maintain a sib-free zone. Allow your older child some space of his own  -- a room, a certain part of the backyard, the basement  -- where he can play alone with friends. (Your job: Keep the younger kid out!)

Don't expect 24/7 togetherness. Make sure each kid has her own time, with you or her friends, without the other around. Even 20 minutes with a parent can make a younger sibling easier to bear.

Arrange double playdates. I've found it's often calmer, rather than more chaotic, when each child has a friend over at the same time.

Blows, accidental

A certain amount of physicality comes with children living in close proximity. Often older kids play with younger sibs the way they play with peers, which can be too rough. ("You don't know your own strength," my mother used to say to my brother after he wrestled a helpless, half-his-size sister over the TV Guide.) What to do about accidental blows:

Come up with a magic word. Tell them, "When someone says 'stop,' we all stop." That lets an older child know he's getting carried away.

Remember: Accidents happen. It's just not realistic to think there should be no physical play.

Blows, intentional

Sometimes siblings also poke, trip, pinch, and do worse on purpose. After all, no one knows you so well as your sister or brother, which means they also know exactly how to push your buttons. How do you keep everybody safe? Make sure your kids know that coming to blows or verbal assaults (like name-calling) fall into the "totally not okay" category. Don't wait for it to happen. Make clear what kind of behavior is not acceptable: "We use words instead of hitting." What you can do about intentional smack-downs:

Don't automatically make the slugger the sole villain. Often, a child has been pestered or teased repeatedly before finally lashing out. In that event, both kids are in the wrong. Let the pestered child know that it's best to tell Mom about the issue right away, before it escalates.

But do punish a hitter. Respond consistently and swiftly: Send her immediately to time-out, no discussion, no negotiation, every time and for every child.

For all their conflicts, most siblings do develop close ties. I don't know what I'd do without my big brother (the one who used to pummel me), and I hope my kids say the same about one another.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the coauthor of Bright From the Start.

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