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Siblings: Part 2

But what about my specific question: Should I intervene or should I let them fight it out? Should I take one approach now and another when they’re older? I was surprised to find no current research on this question. On humans, anyway. I’m not sure the stuff on Mongolian gerbils and spotted fur seals is super relevant to my family situation.

What I found is old and far from conclusive: It’s not like the issue was settled so people stopped working on it. And none of it addresses the question of how intervention affects the sibling relationship, it’s just about whether it reduces the frequency of conflicts.

From what I can tell, this don’t intervene theory arose in the 60s, based on the premise that siblings squabble to get your attention. Stop attending, they’ll stop squabbling. But there isn’t much to back this up. A few papers found correlations between mothers who intervened more and higher rates of conflict. There was only one actual experiment: A group of parents was taught not to intervene and there was a decrease in conflict a few weeks later. But: tiny sample (four families) and HUGE range of ages (5 to 14). Another purely theoretical paper (no data) suggested that a reduction in aggression happens because the less powerful sibling feels helpless and hopeless, not because of the attention thing. Just a hypothesis, but a sort of depressing one…

That was about it. So. Based on my imperfect research, I am concluding for myself (do your own research if you want your own conclusions!) that there’s not sufficient evidence for this intervention causes conflict theory.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve started thinking about the question in a slightly different way. Less WHAT AM I DOING AT THIS VERY MOMENT THAT IS RUINING THEIR CHANCES OF BEING CLOSE AND LOVING and more what do I want them to learn from these conflicts?

Ultimately, I want them to learn empathy and compassion and respect for boundaries. But it’s WAY too early for that. Children don’t understand much about how other people’s minds work until they’re four-ish. Before that, they’re egotistical in the sense of not fully understanding that other people have minds of their own, that they might feel differently about things or know different things. We psychologists call this theory of mind. The model of theory of mind that I like best argues adults are also egotistical, but we have learned to take the additional step of taking other people’s perspectives into account.

SO. I can’t ask that my children understand each others’ feelings or states of mind yet: Bun Bun doesn’t understand that Bunlet wants the toy she is ripping from his arms because she doesn’t truly understand that he has desires. What am I trying to accomplish? I’ve been thinking that I want them both to feel like a) they have rights that are protected, and that b) those rights will be trampled some of the time–it’s the cost of living in a civilized society. In short, they must Take Turns.

I have also been trying to remind myself that conflict is not inherently bad. It is painful to observe, and will probably get more painful as they get more physical, but it probably has some value, too. Kids with siblings tend to develop theory of mind earlier, perhaps because they have endless opportunity to practice social interactions with peers. So they’re learning things by doing this. It’s like one of the papers says: “”…siblings should learn that prosocial adults do not attack one another when angry and that the process of maturing entails suppressing the urge to do so.” (Bennett, 1990) A continual challenge we all face, am I right?

But what should I DO? Other than deciding I was going to continue to intervene, I wasn’t sure. But happily I was emailing about this with Augusta. She is an official Doctor of Children’s Minds, and I think she articulated it beautifully, so I am going to quote her:

“What more can you do beyond modelling and redirection? You are already giving them little social scripts/stories about relating with one another, but at this point, it’s just a matter of their developing brains doing just that: develop. And the modelling, redirection and social scripts will pay off. I can guarantee, but for now, my guess is that there will be more competing for objects whilst blatantly disregarding the other’s basic rights.”

In short: Grit my teeth and wait. While I’m not coming away from this project with the Perfect Plan for Sibling Harmony, it has served its purpose: The Panic has been Reduced. WHAT AM I DOING AT THIS VERY MOMENT THAT IS RUINING THEIR CHANCES OF BEING CLOSE AND LOVING? Probably not a ton.


Bennett, J.C. (1990). Nonintervention into siblings’ fighting as a catalyst for learned helplessness. Psychological Reports, 66, 139-145.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ana #

    Am I a terrible mother? I truly haven’t given this much thought (other than in how their fighting affects ME. Maybe I have not fully developed Theory of the Mind?). I kind of figured they’d work it out somehow. I intervene when there is threat of true bodily harm (which is almost always, these days, they both have quite the temper and a yoinked toy can lead to a throwing things/hitting/kicking fit). We are inconsistent with: a) work it out or b) come tell us. (I tend to go for a, while G goes for b, because…bodily harm).
    I do not insist that everything is “ours” because they each do have favorite toys that were specifically given to them, and I think its OK for them to be a bit possessive of those things and also it allows me to declare that certain things are mama’s so hands off!
    In terms of future relationship—-everything I have read and every bit of anecdotal evidence I have gathered has confirmed to me that its somewhat a crapshoot. Apparently my mother is disappointed that my sister and I aren’t BFFs…but I think we have a good, friendly, albeit somewhat arm’s-length relationship. I love her and we have fun together, but she isn’t a person I would choose to be super-close friends with because of our different personalities…and I don’t know if there is any way to promote your children having compatible personalities.
    Bottom line, I think you’re doing it right. If you do it slightly different, you would still be doing it right.

    January 2, 2014
  2. No matter what you do, there will be a study to confirm the justness of your decision, and another to incriminate the parental neglect that led to such a situation. And being their mother, you are always to blame, you can never win, can you? So I say, go with your instinct. Most of the times it is the best you can do. That is how I nurse my hurt ego whenever I feel guilty, which is sadly way to often. I do the best I can, and that has to be enough for now.

    January 2, 2014
  3. Hmmm…..your research tells me that my hypothesis that no parent really knows exactly what they are doing is correct!

    January 2, 2014
  4. Thank you for sharing this project. Since our kids are the same age this is very relatable material. It has really resonated with me. I am worried about the same issues at the same time. I see my kids dueling over a meaningless toy just because the other one happens to have it at the same time. I see the mostly non-verbal one being pushed by the older one who assumes everything in the house is his. The little one breaks my heart with his tears. The older one pisses me off because he’s seemingly being mean and hurtful. You have shed some real light on this for me. One less thing for me to put all of my energy in to worrying about because you covered it and I like your research and methodology. Also it helps me to see that it’s normal for me to really really want my boys to be friends and be kind to one another and learn empathy. It also reminds me that they really just are babies and it is far too early to press the panic button. Thank you ever so much, Bunny!

    January 3, 2014
  5. Whaaaaat?! I had a nice fat comment I was typing and then *poof* Did it go through?! Ah well, if not, the sentence I was in the middle of typing was something to the effect of: I think you’re right not to panic.

    Damn clumsy fingers trying to type out long comments on a tablet, serves me right. Sigh.

    January 3, 2014
  6. SRB #

    Lots to think about from this series. I have been YELLING a lot, which is no surprise, I guess. But also, “strategically neglecting” them so they can hopefully sort it out? I dunno… keep waiting to see how they handle it, I suppose. I handle it NOT WELL, so perhaps that is where I should re-double my efforts. Yes? Help me specifically!!!!!

    January 5, 2014
  7. I’ve been a less intervention is more kind of person, and one of the reasons for that is because I notice that I am more likely to intervene because the squabbling is annoying me rather than because I feel that peace needs to be upheld. It feels a bit counter-intuitive to start losing my temper with them because they are fighting.

    That said, I probably intervene more than I mean to, and I do try and call out bullying behaviour–my son is allowed to withhold one of his toys from his sister, but he is not allowed to lock her out of the bedroom and leave her crying in the hallway.

    Still, I generally try to limit my intervention to feeding them lines to say to each other, much like Augusta suggested. I can vouch that it does pay off… My son is five, so he’s definitely moving to a new level of social empathy and already having appropriate language in place helps him in his social interactions. My daughter isn’t any older than Bun Bun as you know, so she’s following a script more than anything–but the fact that she knows what to say back to her brother again helps them move past their disagreement. (And usually onto the next one within thirty seconds, but such is life.)

    Which doesn’t help you *now*, but I hope it helps you to know that this will pay off in the long run!

    January 6, 2014
  8. This was a fabulously interesting and helpful post to read (I love knowing other people who actually care about Science when it comes to child-raising). Of course having only one, the question of sibling relationships is practically irrelevant. But on the other hand, we’re deep in the discussion of (shall there) Be Two or Not Be Two, and one of the issues that gets touched on a bit is sibling relationships. Joel’s an only child; he has no experience with a close sibling relationship. I’m one of two, and while my sister and I are certainly amicable, we’ve never had the close relationship some siblings have. We’re just too fundamentally different to have much in common. Looking back, I’m not sure that there’s anything my parents did or didn’t do when it comes to how our relationship developed, and thus it really does seem like much of it is child personality and luck of the draw. Which then makes the “having a sibling” issue rather a difficult one to quantify. If having a sibling would make Gwen happier in the long run, then that’s a tick in the “pro-#2” box. But what if she’d have an ambivalent relationship with a sibling? And there’s no way to know which it would be! Gah.

    So, yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot abut siblings lately, even though I’ve only got one kid.

    what do I want them to learn from these conflicts?

    And I love this as the question to be asking one’s self, whether it’s about sibling conflict or indeed any type of conflict.

    January 6, 2014
  9. I really like the transformation from “what am doing at this moment that is ruining their chances of being close and loving” to “what do I want them to learn”. I think that the second way to think about their conflict is much kinder to everyone, especially you. Because, truly, you are not doing anything that is ruining their chances at sibling harmony. Just the opposite, you are preventing them from clawing each other’s faces out in those heated moments, which greatly increases their chances of liking each other.

    I appreciate the reminder of conflict is not bad. Conflict is another way of relating to one another.

    And, gosh, I’m still blushing about being quoted by the GREAT BUNNY. I’m glad you found a kernel of usefulness in what I wrote.

    January 7, 2014

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