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.