Kids are surprisingly great at solving their own problems, with a little guidance.
Since the days of Cain and Abel, siblings have been at each other’s throats for every reason under the sun—and sometimes no reason at all! It turns out there’s a simple and brilliant trick for putting a stop to sibling squabbling, and surprisingly, it takes a page from Catholic social teaching.
There’s a tenet of Catholic social thought called the “principle of subsidiarity,” which holds that human affairs are best handled at the lowest possible level, closest to those affected, or as one writer put it:
This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be.
Parents can find relief from refereeing sibling battles by applying this principle to home life, and opening up the opportunity for kids to resolve their own disagreements.
Sounds crazy, right? Let’s be clear: Applying this principle doesn’t mean allowing a free-for-all. Instead, parents carefully set the stage for the discussion, and intervene if necessary in serious cases.
If you’re wondering how this plays out in practice, there’s a detailed explanation in the book, Siblings Without Rivalry, written by international parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the book since I read it last spring, and implementing its suggestions has made an enormously positive difference in my kids’ relationships with each other.
Chapter 6 of Siblings Without Rivalry lays out exactly how to help kids handle their arguments at the lowest possible level—themselves!—but for many more helpful and practical tips on cultivating loving, healthy siblings bonds, check out the book.
1Start by acknowledging the children’s anger towards each other. That alone should help calm them.
Naming and acknowledging a child’s desires and feelings is an effective strategy in just about every parenting situation; you might think of it as The Key to your Child’s Heart:
Before you tell your child that it’s time to leave the park, or remind him that the really cool truck he’s examining has to stay at the store, acknowledge his point of view … This is not the same as agreeing, and is definitely not indulgent or allowing an undesirable behavior. Acknowledging isn’t condoning our child’s actions; it’s validating the feelings behind them.
It’s no different in this case when two siblings are butting heads. Saying something like “Boy, you two sound angry at each other!” or “You both sound really frustrated!” can do the trick.
2Listen to each child’s side with respect.
Hear each of them out, and then describe each child’s point of view. You might say something like, “You wanted to play with that toy by yourself … but you wanted to play with it too.”
3Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem.
Take a minute to acknowledge their opinion that this is a big issue to them, even if it seems silly to you. You might say something like, “This is a tough problem! Two children who want to use the same toy at the same time.”
4Express faith in their ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution.
You want to build their confidence in themselves and each other as problem solvers, and start off their discussion on the right foot. Try saying something like, “I know you two are good at thinking of solutions to problems, and I have confidence that if you put your heads together, you’ll come up with a solution that feels fair to each of you.”
5Leave the room.
This is the craziest part—the part that calls for subsidiarity, the part that feels like a huge leap of faith. But letting them work it out without you there is the key to success. Say something like, “While you’re working on it, I’ll be in the other room.” And then follow through!
The kids may surprise you by coming up with a solution that’s better than anything you could’ve imposed, and even if their solution doesn’t seem very inspired, at least they found one and stopped fighting! It’s a win all around.
Of course, there are some situations in which parents should not allow children to work out their own disagreements:
Children should have the freedom to resolve their own differences, but children are also entitled to adult intervention when necessary. If one child is being abused by the other, either physically or verbally, we’ve got to step in. If there’s a problem that’s disrupting the entire household, we’ve got to step in… We intervene, not for the purpose of settling their argument or making a judgment, but to open the blocked channels of communication so that they can go back to dealing with each other.
Barring these serious circumstances, children should be able to resolve their own conflicts after you’ve set them up for success. Just add a little subsidiarity, and watch as your children grow in confidence and in peaceful, cooperative behavior with each other.
How to put an end to sibling rivalry