A major perk of writing about parenting for a living is that I’m privy to all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas about the business of raising babies. I’ve read every parenting manual going, been on numerous parenting workshops and tried out a variety of different parenting ideas and strategies, all in the course of a normal day’s work. And of course my children benefit from all this. too. But sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that sibling rivalry basically boils down to jealousy. A wise woman once told me that siblings squabble when one child feels that a parent loves the other child more. To the child who feels less loved it can appear that the adored sibling has a cupful of endless affection and attention. A child vies or rivals with its sibling in a bid to ‘steal’ something from that enviable cup.
What’s critical and astonishing about this perspective is that it doesn’t really make a jot of difference whether the parent really does love one child more than the other. The point is that if a child feels that’s the case then they experience life as if it is a fact – as if they are second-best. And of course if you don’t actually favour one child over another then it’s practically impossible to address the situation. You’re dealing with a child’s perception, perhaps not with reality. How do you convince the child who feels his cup is emptier than his brother’s or sister’s that in fact he is equally loved, wanted and accepted? And the very nature of sibling rivalry is that the child who feels devalued often behaves in a way that lands him or her in trouble, and inadvertently garners sympathy and attention for the other child.
Apparently our own childhood experiences of sibling rivalry distinctively shape the way we respond to our children’s squabbles, too. So you’re likely to be more sympathetic if you too felt second-best as a child, and more dismissive if you rarely felt your cup was empty. The secret to tackling sibling rivalry is making sure that every child feels primary in your affections.
I’ve tried explaining to my kids that my heart has two parts, equal in size, and that one half belongs to each child. It works well as a concept that they can grasp and understand but tonight they threw me for a loop with an unanticipated question:
“So which part of your heart belongs to Daddy?”
“All of it,” I said, perhaps rashly.
“Then you love Daddy more than me?”
Now tell me, why isn’t that question addressed in any of those clever parenting manuals?