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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.

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