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With Character in MindSibling Squabbles     << Ch. 13 >>
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23

Sibling Problems
The cause of almost all the sibling problems I have encountered amongst the many moms I talk to and in my own family, can be boiled down to self-centeredness and pride. Since we�ve already discussed pride at some length, I�d like to move on to discussing the natural selfishness of children, now it demonstrates itself in sibling problems, and what we can do about eradicating it and producing children who are peacemakers instead. Again, I will be using questions from parents to illustrate my points and perspectives and to deliver some practical help to those who are dealing with this issue in their families. 

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.
-Matthew 5:9

Pre-Baby Jealousy
Dacia: My children are acting up more than usual lately. They know I am expecting a new baby. Are they jealous already? I want them to adjust well to their new sibling. What should I do?

Elizabeth: Please don�t believe that when a new baby is introduced into the family, the other siblings will automatically become jealous. This is simply not true, and certainly not true in advance of the baby�s arrival! Your children are not misbehaving because a new baby is coming. If there is any connection at all, it is very likely that they are misbehaving because you are treating them differently. Are you distracted and not watching them as well as you normally do, thus allowing more temptations than usual? Is morning sickness making it difficult to spend as much time with them as they have grown accustomed to, enticing them to misbehave in order to get your attention? Is your concern about them adjusting to the new baby causing you to be more lenient with them, letting them get away with little things and thereby encouraging them to test the boundaries more and more? All these changes in behavior on your part are quickly noticed by your children and can cause them to alter their behavior, usually for the worse.

I never went to any great lengths to verbally lecture, educate or "prepare" my children for the arrival of their next new sibling. Most little children aren't going to understand all the speeches anyway and you can easily do more harm than good. Warning them about all the problems the new baby will create will just encourage them to expect such problems to occur. For example: I never said things like, "It's hard having a new baby. You might be angry sometimes, so come to Mommy when you are upset and we'll talk about it." No, I thought it was far better to be pleasantly matter-of-fact about the upcoming event and just expect the whole family to take it in stride. 

Whenever I was expecting a new little one, I just treated it as a normal, wonderful, family event. I referred to the babe as "our" new baby, not "Mom's" new baby, or "my" new baby, or even "the" new baby. I believed it is wonderful to have a new baby, so I acted as though the other children would feel the same way. And they always did. 

Building up false hopes that the new baby will be "fun, fun, fun" all the time, can be just as damaging as dire warnings, so I didn�t do that either. I didn�t want them to be disappointed and resentful when the child arrived and they began to notice that crying, smelly diapers, and spit up came with the package, and that Mom was suddenly very tired and preoccupied. So I didn�t over emphasize the entertainment value of the new child, but I did make sure they knew this wonderful event was a blessing from God and that the new arrival would be someone we would welcome and love. I told them they would be allowed to help care for the baby, and even hold him when he was a little bigger. I made it sound as though helping was a special treat, and that caring for and protecting the new baby was an important job they would soon have the privilege of participating in. 

Since I knew I would be more busy and distracted than normal once the baby was born, during pregnancy I try to be even more diligent than usual to correct behavior problems in my other toddlers, to assure they're under control when the new baby arrived and it became more difficult to handle such problems. Beside correcting as needed for routine misbehavior, I also corrected any child who pouted or displayed other signs of a wrong attitude about the new arrival. This is really no different than any other wrong attitude and should be dealt with accordingly. Handle things wisely, promptly, and properly you'll experience no significant sibling rivalry or jealousy.

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life.
- Proverbs 4:13

Post Baby Jealousy
Allison: My older daughter is almost three-years-old and we have been having a problem with her that seems to be related to her little sister. She won�t stay in her bed during the night or at nap time. We are very consistent in correcting her each time she gets out, but she still keeps up the misbehavior. She wants to be in the baby's crib, and the baby to be somewhere else.

Elizabeth: It sounds like your three-year-old may be a little jealousy of her younger sibling. She is perhaps noticing all the consideration the baby in the crib is getting and feels a bit left out. Be sure to give her plenty of your attention whenever you see an opportunity. Be very generous with hugs and cuddles and little chats together. Seek her out for these things, even if she does not come to you asking for them. Meanwhile, it is perfectly fine to treat them like twins for awhile, until the older one feels more secure in your love and affection. 

At our house, once the expected new baby was born, one of the things I did to discourage jealousy problems, was make sure I was not always pushing the older children aside while I indulged and catered to the baby. That means that if I was helping a toddler get a bowl of cereal, and the baby started to fuss, I did not drop everything, rush to pick up the baby, and leave my poor toddler staring at an empty bowl. I didn�t want to leave him sitting there waiting and feeling neglected for the next half hour, while I comforted, nursing, burped, changed, and cuddled the baby. No, I calmly finished tending to the immediate needs of my toddler first, then I went and picked up the baby. 

So be careful not to push the older one out of the nest too soon. My best advice is to keep BOTH your children very close to you as much as possible, being lovingly demonstrative with them, but still not allowing manipulation or misbehavior. Stop all bickering and unkindness toward one another. Try to encourage the older one to have a sense of responsibility toward the younger one, by having the older one help you with the younger. Meanwhile, teach the younger one to show love and appreciation to the older ones with hugs, kisses and a cooperative spirit. As they grow, don't allow the older one to boss the younger around, but at the same time teach the younger one to respect the older one, and obey polite requests. 

�and in {your} godliness, brotherly kindness, and in {your} brotherly kindness, love.
- II Peter 1:7

Many childrearing �experts� say that children should not be required to share their toys. Some parents require them to share, but set timers to keep everything perfectly even. Some buy two of everything in an effort to insure equality and stop the fighting over possessions. While these methods may temporarily relieve the stress of sibling toy wars, none of these methods sounds too good to me. None of them accomplishes the goal of training my children to have godly mindsets and godly habits. 

When the issue of sharing comes up here, as always, I use it as a opportunity to teach my children godly character. I look toward godly adult interaction, for my teaching model. That means that I am not satisfied when my children are acting like self-centered, immature children, but I work toward the goal of having their behavior ultimately reflect the generosity, kindness, wisdom, and other character qualities found in a godly adult. 

So, for example, if a child receives a toy for his birthday, I don�t just declare the toy his, and allow him to be as selfish with it as he pleases. Instead, I require him to act in the same way an adult gift recipient would act. Yes, the toy belongs to him, and for a few days or weeks the other children are not to ask to share it. In the same way, if Mom just received a brand new sewing machine, her best friend would probably not rush right over and ask to borrow it, would she?

However, after the newness wore off, I would expect the birthday child to share his toy, if asked politely, and assured that the other child would care for it properly, just as Mom would lend out her sewing machine to a reliable friend if she asked.

There would be certain occasions where I would expect my child to politely refuse to share a particular item. Just as an adult would not normally lend out something that did not belong to him for example, neither would I expect a child to do so. If the object in question was breakable or of special sentimental value, I would teach my child to ask my permission first before honoring another child�s request to share it. 

As is so often the case, you can't create and institute one perfect and simple edict that covers everything involved in every situation. You have to be watching your children as they interact, guiding them, and making sure that they are all learning to share or sometimes refuse to share, in a kind, godly way.

"Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you."
- Matthew 5:42

Claire: Quarreling over toys is the one predictable daily event in our house. One child will have a toy, set it down, and wander off. A sibling opportunist comes along and claims it. The first child returns and cries, "Hey! That was mine!" And the fight is on!

Although both are being selfish, still the original player is to blame, since he had abandoned the toy. Right?

To resolve the quarrels, I've resorted to a somewhat crude expedient: I set a timer for fifteen minutes. One plays with the toy in dispute until the timer beeps, then must hand it over to the other child for the next fifteen minutes. And so on and so forth. 

I explain that they are learning to take turns and share, and this does make things tolerable when the timer is handy, but is there a better way to deal with the problem?

Elizabeth: While the timer may give you some temporary respite from sibling bickering, they are not learning to be generous and share out of the kindness of their hearts, when they depend on a timer to rule them. Throw out the timer and loosely Tomato Stake them near you when they are playing, so you can observe their interactions. Step in and teach them not just how to follow egocentric rules (I had it first so it�s mine), but godly principles (It pleases God when I am generous and share, even if I had it first and it�s mine). Be there and demonstrate, supervise, teach, and enforce as needed.

Here is a model script to give you some ideas:

(Johnny and Timmy engage in a tug of war over a toy car. Timmy is holding the car and Johnny is trying to pull it away.)
Mom: Stop it right now!
(neither lets go)
Timmy: He's grabbing my car!
Johnny: It's my car!
Mom: Johnny, let go of that car.
(Johnny reluctantly lets go, but looks dejected.)
Mom: Johnny, if you want the car, ask him nicely for it. We do not grab. Say, "May I please have the car." Go ahead and ask him now.
Johnny: (to Timmy) May I please have that car.
(Timmy looks forlornly at mom.)
Mom: Timmy, give him the car.
(Timmy pouts and drops the car instead of putting it in his brother's outstretched hand.)
Mom: Timmy, pick that up and hand it to your brother nicely.
(Timmy needs a little swat to encourage him, but then obeys, still unhappy. Johnny prepares to escape with the car, but Mom stops him.)
Mom: Johnny, who had the car first? 
Johnny: (hangs head) He did.
Mom: Timmy, ask Johnny for the car back, nicely. Say, "May I please have my car back?"
Timmy: "May I please have my car back?"
(By now Johnny knows what is up and hands the car back, though less than thrilled. After all, he didn't get what he wanted, but he recognizes that Mom is right.)
Mom: (to both) Now I don't want to hear you fighting over that car again. Do not grab anything from anyone. If you want something, ask for it nicely. If your brother was just playing with something, don't grab it the second he sets it down. That is very selfish. Wait until you think he doesn't want it anymore, then ask him nicely for it. And do not claim a whole pile of toys, just to keep them from your brother. That is hoarding, and it is very selfish and you will not be allowed to play at all if I see that happening. Do you understand? 
(Both children nod, and Mom allows them to play again, but keeps watch over them.)

Now that's just an example. It needs to be adjusted according to the occasion and ages of the children. Keep it simple. They may be not understand everything you say, but God�s Spirit is always present to prick even the conscience of a little child, and they will inherently know they were wrong. 

Of course, being immature children, they will do it again, so be prepared for many repeats until they grow in understanding and eventually acquire both the habit and desire to please God and do what it right. Meanwhile be vigilant and firm. If they go right back to quarreling, immediately banish them to different corners facing the wall until they are very bored and motivated to get along. It's amazing how fast they can learn to share when faced by the immediate threat of being separated and not have the opportunity to play at all.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.
- Philippians 2:14-15

Constance: My kids are always tattling on their siblings. They can't seem to discriminate between what is important and what isn't, so instructing them to report only the important stuff is useless. How do I handle tattling?

Elizabeth: It�s true that young children cannot readily distinguish between what is important and what is not. I fully expect it to take years of parental effort to teach them to be discerning, but I know that�s my job, so I roll up my sleeves and get to work. When I hear a complaint from one child about another, I don't just get annoyed and shoo him off with, "That's not important. Stop bothering me." Instead, I use it as an opportunity to teach the child to weigh and judge judiciously, and to think and act appropriately.

Consider these examples:

Child: Whaaaa, Mom, he hit me!
Me: Are you hurt?
Child: No.
Me: Was he trying to hurt you?
Child: No.
Me: Did he "hit" you or did he just bump into you?
Child: He just bumped me.
Me: Did he do it on purpose to be mean? Or was it just an accident?
Child: It was an accident.
Me: What do you think I should do about him?
Child: I don't know.
Me: Should I spank him?
Child: (beginning to feel a little guilty for tattling in an effort to get his sibling in trouble) No.
Me: Don't report an accident like that if nobody is hurt and he didn't do it on purpose, okay? Now go play nicely and be careful.

Another example:

Child: Mom, he didn't put his shoes away.
Me: Did you put your shoes away?
Child: Yes.
Me: Are his shoes hurting anyone?
Child: No.
Me: Do you think I'll see his shoes where they don't belong?
Child: Yes.
Me: Then you really don't have to tell me do you?
Child: No.
Me: (pleasantly) I do want you to tell me if he does something mean or dangerous, but you don't have to tell me about his shoes, ok?
Child: Okay

Every circumstance is different and your response will also vary according to the age of the child. Try to get enough information to discern the motive behind the tattling, then direct the child to think properly, applying godly reasoning and values, and to figure out whether he was right in tattling, or not.

For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.
- Proverbs 26:20

Teach your children to love their brothers and sisters. They will treat their husbands and wives later on, the way they treat their brothers and sisters now. In fact, the way your children treat their siblings is a preview of how they will deal with every other person they come in contact with for the rest of their lives, not just their future spouses. How scary is that?! But think about it. If they can�t get along with their own siblings, who were all raised in the same house under the same parental teaching and value system, how will they ever get along with others outside the family who will be contributing a myriad of different personality types, standards, habits, beliefs, and customs to the mix?

If you have godliness as your goal for your children, it is also wise to consider that interaction between siblings provides every opportunity for your children to display their natural self-centered characters, and therefore to provide you with the corresponding opportunity to teach and train them to deny their base nature and embrace and demonstrate God�s nature instead. 

The next time your children bicker, instead of becoming angry and looking simply for a way to stop them from annoying you as quickly as possible, rejoice that another opportunity has presented itself, for you to teach them what true Christianity is: to love God and to love others as you love yourself. 

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
- Leviticus 19:18

Strife Among Brothers

If you as parents view any unkindness between siblings as meanness and hatred, you will be far more diligent in stopping it. This viewpoint should motivate you to end bickering, contentiousness and strife among your children. It can be done, but it takes persistence and vigilance. When your children are very small, it is not difficult to stop bickering, just step in and correct whatever bad action has occurred. The heart of a small child will very often follow the child's actions, even if he does not fully understand it all. If you diligently correct his selfishness by making him share for example, sharing will become a habit, and you will soon find that his heart has become inclined toward generosity. 

When your children are quarreling, correct them each according to what you know each did wrong. Don't be overly concerned about trying to learn the whole story. Don't try to make things work out perfectly fair. Life is not fair. Try to be just, but not "even" or "fair". Teach them that they must do what is right even if others wrong them. They should be taught to "go the extra mile" as Jesus taught us in Matthew 5:41. Watch for wrong attitudes toward each other. Continue working with all parties until they have a right attitude. 

If you really want to stop all bickering (and you should) then listen, and stop it at the very first wrong tone of voice. Better yet, watch them closely and step in at the first angry look. But don't just tell them to stop. After you tell them to stop, watch and see that they do. If the bickering resumes, step in and give them specific instructions on how to act nicely and get along with one another. Discipline as needed. Require them to apologize if they wronged each other. If they seem to be selectively slow learners in this area, and continue to bicker, separate them, giving them each chores to do if they are old enough, or just having them sit nearby and do nothing until they are motivated increase their comprehension. 

One successful teaching technique I have used when a major dispute occurs, is as follows. First I call the involved parties over. Then I ask one of them to begin to recount the incident. I may stop them periodically and ask the other if the things I am being told are true and accurate. I do not allow exaggeration or a negative attitude, only the simple, calmly told facts. Then I go back to the very beginning and have both children act out exactly what was said and done. As they do this, they are required to act as they should have, not as they actually did. Of course they never get to the dispute part. Next they must again act out the incident having the first offender repeat his first offense. The offendee is then required to respond correctly, not as he actually did. It always seems that these things begin with a very small action or word and then the problem escalates with wrong responses on both sides spurring it on. If they are constantly bringing you tiny disagreements unnecessarily, try having them go through so much litigation (your questioning) that the next time they will try to settle out of court, by working things out peacefully themselves. Always look for opportunities to teach character.

There is one particular lecture I give my children when they bicker. I tell them with all sincerity, that their brothers and sisters should always be their very best friends. Other friends will come and go (I insert examples from my life here), but siblings will always be family. They will always be there for you when you really need them and you need to understand the importance of acting with that in mind. Treat them better than you would anyone else. Value them as you should. Convince your children of these things. Remind them that bickering is one of the "seven things" the Lord hates.

There are six things which the LORD hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.
- Proverbs 6:16-19

Mass Bickering
Norah: With six young children, sometimes the bickering just gets out of control around here. I feel like I am rushing from one squabble to the next all day long, disciplining and trying to sort things out, to no avail. It just escalates until I�m ready to put them all up for adoption! What can I do?

Elizabeth: Once things get out of control, simply spot correcting after-the-fact, doesn�t really work. You have to start all over again, by restoring order in general, then keeping it. The way to do that is to group Tomato Stake. 

So round everyone up and sit them all down and put them in "silent mode". Do not allow them to talk or even to look at each other, if it�s too much for them to handle. Isolate them in separate corners or on separate chairs as needed. Discipline the troublemakers, promptly if they remain slow to obey. 

While they are practicing being silent and still, sit down yourself and decide what direction you want your family to go in next. Do you want to do schoolwork? Chores? Cooking? Fun? Maybe you'd like to spend an hour just "catching up". Sometimes half of the problem is that we ourselves, don�t know what we really want them to be doing, and they sense this. They know that no one is really at the helm, so they take advantage of the situation and caste off in whatever direction pleases them. So decide what you would really like to have your children do next. Playing should probably be off your list and replaced with chores until they appreciate being allowed to play together and are motivated to play without bickering. 

After you know where you want to be headed, outlast the kids until they are calmed down, out of the bickering mode, and bored enough to be motivated to cooperate. Then start giving directions to one child at a time, always having him return to you after finishing what you asked. Only send one child off at a time. Keep them all with you as much as possible, while moving gradually in the direction of the way you have decided to proceed with your day. If you don't rush this, things should be back on track very soon. Keep things on track by not letting everyone go off in different directions, and by returning any child who begins to bicker to silent mode and separation, AS SOON AS the first disruption occurs.

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.
- Proverbs 10:12

(c) Copyright 2007 L. Elizabeth Krueger.  All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.