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Oh Brother!

Sibling rivalry can have repercussions well beyond the childhood years. Melak Foster offers advice on how parents can create greater family harmony.
Cain and Able, Venus and Serena Williams, Prince Harry and Prince William, siblings are everywhere, making history, breaking records and usually trying to get along.

The impact that parents have on their offspring (as role models, benefactors and disciplinarians) is well documented. However, what role do siblings play in shaping who we are and, how can parents alter the course of sibling relationships to the best of every family member's interest?

The way we settle into interacting with our siblings carries through into adulthood, not only in our continued discourse with our brothers and sisters, but in the way we operate in other relationships: love, work and social.

Most parents, on introducing a second child into the family unit, will dwell on ways to dispel the jealousy and anger the first child is expected to feel immediately upon the new sibling's arrival; presenting a baby doll and bottle to the older sibling so he can play baby too, or giving a gift to the older child ‘from' the new baby.

Often, however, it is not until many months later that the feelings of sibling discontent rear up when the ‘baby' starts to babble, move around and develop a personality of his or her own. Bringing up siblings together, although challenging, provides an opportunity for children to learn the skills required in order to get along with others on a civilised level.

Regardless of how different siblings are in age, skills or personality, developing a few techniques as a parent and referee can drastically alter the long-term outlook for sibling relationships. In learning to deal with one another, brothers and sisters can learn how to listen to and respect each other and negotiate in order to resolve issues instead of getting hung up on who is right and who is wrong. As parents, this is all we want, siblings who love, support and are loyal to each other in a way that will outlast our parental policing long after we are gone.

Allow bad feelings. Right from the beginning, parents may say: “You are going to have a new brother or sister and you will love him or her so much”, so that when the sibling begins to feel less than hospitable towards the new arrival, he or she may be racked with guilt and feel like a bad person.

Often just by talking to children about their anger and letting them know their feelings are normal, a lot of the venom is dispelled straight away. Teach children how to harness their anger and jealousy by encouraging them to vent feelings not only through speech but also through drawing or exercise.

Remember that insisting on good behaviour and feelings all the time may make a child feel trapped and unable or afraid to express him or herself. Make it clear that bad feelings are allowed but destructive or harmful actions are not - a trait which will serve any person well in life.

Do not compare or compartmentalise siblings. Some compartmentalising or ‘labelling' may seem benign or even constructive. Introducing your three children as “my oldest, my middle child and my baby” sounds harmless, however children fall into the categories we set for them and take on their allotted personae - sometimes never breaking out of these. Even in labelling a child ‘gifted' or ‘a musical genius' the damage can be that the ‘musical genius' never explores his or her ability in other areas.

This child may in fact be ‘a musical and a mathematical genius' but may not venture into an area where he or she is deemed not to excel.

As for the impact on other siblings, labelling one child as ‘the artistic one' may stop another truly gifted sibling from ever picking up a paintbrush because he or she thinks they can never measure up.

Instead, instil in children the value of each of them as individuals and the value of their individual successes, avoiding negative as well as positive comparisons - which can put a huge amount of pressure on children to always measure up.

Telling a child they are ‘better' at something may introduce a panic that they might lose favour if they ever lose the upper hand and as a result, this child may start trying to hijack other sibling's efforts in the same area.
Encourage cooperation not competition. Do not try to better your children's individual behaviour by creating competition between them. Phrases like “Let's see who can get their shoes on first,” for example, drives a wedge between siblings. Instead, make positive observations to encourage each child individually: “Wow, you got your shoes on.”

Stop ‘tale telling' by teaching kids that they are responsible for their own behaviour and that it does not ‘pay' to tell tales - meaning make sure you as a parent do not rise to the bait when one sibling accuses another of anything less than a deed which is dangerous or damaging.

When siblings are squabbling, force yourself not to get involved unless absolutely necessary - otherwise you will become a pawn. Instead, when an argument sounds like it is getting out of control, break the momentum of the fight by acknowledging everyone's anger, summarising each person's point of view and what the problem is, expressing your confidence (ha, ha) in their ability to solve the argument and then... LEAVE!

The more you intervene the more you will have to intervene because the sooner siblings learn to work out their differences without calling on the referee (you, the parent) the more peaceful your family's life will be.

If you have a child who is stuck in a bad behavioural cycle, encourage them to break out of their habits by helping them to visualise what sort of person they could be if they set their minds to it instead of branding them ‘bully', ‘nasty' or ‘so mean all the time' in a parental fit of frustration. Offer possible solutions and options for more acceptable behaviour without passing any ultimatums on how your child should behave.

Another way to breed a cooperative spirit amongst siblings is through group rewards and punishments. When one sibling reaches a personal goal or comes home with an excellent exam mark, for example, involve all siblings in a celebratory ice cream or other favour. Avoiding singling out the victor will encourage siblings to help and want to see each other's successes instead of competing for favours.

Similarly, group punishment can also be effective in that it stops them telling tales and sometimes, in the most priceless moments, makes siblings ‘partners in crime' which often is a harmless ‘pulling the wool over mum's eye' way of bonding siblings together. For example, even when you as a parent know that Sibling A stuffed down Sibling Bs hated green beans when your back was turned so that they could both go out and play, it may be best not to ‘get to the bottom' of an indiscretion such as this one. Instead, let them have a private giggle and victory over mum.

Leave some space. As well as siblings may - or may not - get along, work in some time that they can spend apart as well as making sure that each child gets some time alone with you the parent.

Each child is unique in his or her own way, which should never be overlooked in an effort to treat them all completely alike. By getting to know the individual siblings in your family it will quickly become apparent that all three may not like whatever it is that is on sale or available all at the same time.

There will also be birthdays when it cannot be every sibling's birthday at the same time. Treating your children fairly is an important distinction from treating them equally, and letting each one know you love them because of who they are as individuals will remove most of the threat other siblings bring into their life's equation.

Originally from South Africa, Jenny Waterhouse lives in Dubai with her husband and two children Claire and Ken.

Claire and Ken, now 16 and 15 respectively, were born just 17 months apart. “Looking back I wonder whether I did everything that should have been done,” reminisces Jenny. “They've always got on very well. Perhaps it helped that my first-born is a girl. They were friends to each other and they had their own friends too. But it is only now that they are both at a difficult age and they have so little patience with anyone and particularly people they have to live with! Often their tiffs are to do with time on the computer or television.

“Usually they end up sorting out the problems amongst themselves and I think that is because of the long years of bonding they have. But if the argument gets out of hand I resort to telling him or her that nobody gets to use anything. That works like magic. If I try and intervene on one person's behalf the other one always feels that I am on the side of the other sibling.

“We try to explain our point of view but they are not always convinced. I have to say that their father has to say less to get better results.

“This is probably because he's around for a shorter duration of time while my working hours are the same as theirs so we are together at home most of the time.

“They are both expected to do their share of chores to earn enough points for their pocket money. There is no gender discrimination in the distribution of chores so that is not a problem area. Ken will certainly cook as many dinners as Claire because they score higher points in that.

“Sometimes it does seem like sibling arguments have become the order of the day but as parents we have to remember that this is all a part of growing up and they will outgrow this phase too. We live in hope, don't we?”

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