Encouraging toddlers to be ‘Siblings Without Rivalry’

sueLast summer, I posted a couple pictures on Facebook of my girls. The first showed Jovie, then 14 months, with scratch marks across her forehead given to her by big sister Lily, who was almost 3 at the time. The second showed a sad-eyed Lily with a retaliatory bite mark on her arm.

I don’t remember what caused the altercation, but I remember feeling defeated and thinking to myself, “It’s going to be a long life for these two if they keep fighting like this.”

A friend left a comment on one of the pictures:

“First of all this is awesome. And B, may I recommend ‘Siblings Without Rivalry.’ It’s not perfect, but it’s short, and if read early, can prevent some ‘dumb parenting moments’ and possibly lead to some ‘brilliant parenting moments!’”

It wasn’t until a couple months ago that I finally downloaded the book to my Kindle.

It was a quick read — it took me less than a week to finish — but packed with case studies, cartoons and practical advice for troubleshooting conflict, reducing competition and encouraging more positive relationships between siblings.

Authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish regularly run parenting workshops, so many of the examples shared in the book came from complaints and concerns that real parents had about their own kids.

Not only was it a relief to read that so many other parents of young children had dealt with the scratching, biting, hitting, kicking, shoving, hair pulling and other various abuses my girls enacted on each other, but it also gave me insight into the relationships I have with my own siblings (plenty of parents in the book share anecdotes from their own childhood battles).

And I’ve had success with a couple of techniques suggested in the book (truthfully, there were so many ideas in there, I’m just focusing on one or two for the time being).

For instance, when it comes to fighting rather than intervening in favor of one child or the other, Faber and Mazlish recommend to let your kids work it out form themselves.

Here are the steps they outline in the book:

    • Start by acknowledging the children’s anger towards each other. That alone should help calm them.
    • Listen to each child’s side with respect.
    • Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem
    • Express faith in their ability to work out a mutually agreeable solution
    • Leave the room

When I initially read this, I was more than a little skeptical about how easily this concept could be applied to the interpersonal relationships of a toddler with still-developing language skills and a domineering preschooler.

But it actually works. Usually the biggest cause of discord in the house is over toys, so when the screaming starts, I offer my observations:

“Wow, you both look very mad. What’s going on?”

Usually Lily will explain the cause of the brouhaha, Jovie adding her input where she can.

I generally don’t have to go much beyond step two before Lily or Jovie is offering to share the disputed toy. I make sure to lavish on the praise for their peaceful negotiations for added measure.

These interactions serve as reminders to me that I need to give the girls more credit for their ability to solve problems — they’re smart and capable and actually seem to get excited when I empower them instead of taking one side or the other.

“Siblings Without Rivalry” is a book I know I’ll re-read over the years as the girls grow and their relationship evolves.

They’re giving me plenty of opportunities to practice my new-found parenting techniques in the meantime.

Recently, Lily ran into the kitchen, clutching her arm, her eyes welling over with tears. “Jovie bit me.”

Here we go again, I thought.

But remembering the book I gave Lily a big hug, kissed the small, raspberry-red bite mark and offered her an ice pack to sooth the sting. I told her that it wasn’t nice of Jovie to bite her and that Jovie needed to use words when she was upset. And then Lily did the unexpected, she gave Jovie a hug.

“What happened?” Jovie asked all wide-eyed.

“You bit Lily and she’s sad,” I told her.

As I settled Lily on the couch with her ice pack, Jovie crawled up next to her.

“I help?” she asked Lily.

“OK,” Lily replied. And Jovie took the ice pack and held it on Lily’s injured arm.

Of course, in the time it took me to grab my camera to capture the moment, they started fighting over the ice pack.

God-willing, it will be a long life for both of them. But at least they’ll have each other.

Susan Jennings is mom to Lily, 3; Jovie, 23 months; Snacks the dog; and Peanut Butter and Delaney the cats. She is wife to Brad. Read her blog at www.myinsidevoices.com.

On the shelf

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too,” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. $15.95.

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