Thank goodness one of my children has good manners,” says Mum in Francesca Simon’s best-selling Horrid Henry series. It drives Horrid Henry up the wall. Life is not fair. Goody-goody younger bro Perfect Peter is always in favour.
Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter, similar to siblings everywhere, squabble. Children love Horrid Henry because he does all the things they would like to do. As Simon explained in an interview, “You get the entire thrill (with Horrid Henry) of behaving badly and none of the consequences.” So, Horrid Henry tries to return Perfect Peter to the hospital and then to sell him at a jumble sale. All to no avail. “The truth was he was stuck with Peter. But if he couldn’t sell Peter, and he couldn’t turn Peter into a worm, he could get Peter into trouble.” And so it goes.
In the land of sibling rivalry, where who-gets-the-window-seat can lead to a battle of epic proportions, such bickering is business as usual. For the parents in charge, it can be exhausting. After all, the battleground, window seats notwithstanding, is really the parent. “Often, five-year-old Vikram will come with a little flower for me,” says radio jockey and now stay-home-mom, Salone Mehta. “Two-minutes later, his four-year-old brother Varun will be sure to come with another flower.” Vikram and Varun fight all the time. But they are inseparable as well, with bedtime conversations that go on long after lights out.
If siblings can have such wonderful companionship, and can be such great playmates, why then must they fight? It’s a genetic thing, science theorists such as Richard Dawkins (of The Selfish Gene fame) say. Like survival of the fittest, there’s no getting around sibling rivalry. Siblings are programmed to compete for scarce parental resources. But not all siblings are equally combative.
What then determines the degree of rivalry? “The gender—two little boys tend, at a very young age, to be rivals, as do two little girls. Also, the spacing in terms of how many years there are between them and the personality of the children,” says psychologist Sonya Mehta. But, by far the most important factor, she emphasizes, is the parents. “How parents deal with their children has a huge impact on whether the children become friends or rivals.” The worst approach in this case is, of course, the ‘C’ word—comparison. “Don’t compare or keep pushing one child.” And then there’s the very affectionate, innocuous-sounding comment, “this child of mine is just like me”, which can really cause much heartburn in the other child.
So, what do parents do? In the wonderfully readable Siblings Without Rivalry (by the authors of the classic How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have some interesting suggestions with a series of concrete examples. “Instead of saying, ‘why can’t you hang up your clothes like your brother?’” they say, “speak to the child only about the behaviour that displeases you…‘I see a brand new jacket on the floor.’”
Ignore normal bickering, they say, and intervene only if the situation is heating up. Investor dad Russel Kane agrees, “Katherine and Emily are six years apart, yet they still fight over toys, TV programmes or the computer. But I try not to interfere.” Kane’s approach obviously works, as the two girls spend hours playing together in their little tent, bonding even better in the holidays when they get more time together.
Still, fights are only one aspect of the competition between brothers and sisters. It’s a competitive relationship, which, rather like cholesterol, has both its good and bad strains. On the upside, there’s always someone to play with/ pick a fight with and someone with whom you can gang up against the parents. The rough and tumble of the growing up years works as a great training ground for the world itself, where children must compete as well as compromise.
And then, there’s the great goodwill—one that can’t but assert itself, come fight or fracas. As my nine-year-old daughter exclaimed (last in a list of colourful complaints about her younger sister), “There are too many complaints about her to name. Despite that she tags behind me everywhere.”
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