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Friday, March 6, 2009

Sibling Rivalry

I am the oldest of my parents’ four kids. I have a great relationship with one brother and my sister, but my other brother and I have always had a love/hate relationship. After years of self analysis, I can safely say the crux of our problem is sibling rivalry. I would love to be able to blame it all on him, but the fact is it takes two to tango as they say.

I have been amazed at the passion with which friends and family have weighed in on the issue of sibling rivalry. With the obvious exception of only children, It seems that almost everyone has been affected, in some cases scared, by overdone competition between siblings. Many family health experts believe sibling rivalry is more common in children of the same gender and if they are close in age.

Wondering how well my wife and I handled the issue, I called my oldest son to get his opinion of the relationship he and his siblings enjoy. I figured he more likely an honest broker as he is in college and away from home. He reported that he and his siblings compete all the time but they kept it behind the scenes, as they know Dawn and I try to keep the rivalry to a minimum. He argues sibling competition is good as long as the rivalry is kept inside ethical boundaries and is not allowed to overtake the whole of the relationship. He believes the friendly competition has made each of them better while they have stayed supportive of each other’s successes.

In the spirit of making myself a better parent and helping the many of you who have shared your challenges with me in this area, allow me to pass along the fruits of my research:

The family meeting has a role to play keeping sibling rivalry healthy, if you take an evening to gather input on how your family feels about the issue, how they believe the family is faring, resolving conflict in a healthier way, and getting buy-in on strategies to move forward.

Take the time to explain that “fair” and “equal” are not always the same thing and standards are not always consistent. For example, you may expect “straight ‘A’s” from one child and yet “C’s” from another. Fairness derives from expecting the same effort from each child and them to try their best.

Accordingly, finding each child’s talents and expecting the entire family to celebrate everyone’s success is key. At the same time, expecting the entire family to help others with their challenges is important too.

Another tool in reducing destructive rivalry is to do fun, family activities together. Simple things like game night should be a weekly event, and monthly embarking on a more involved activity like camping or a road trip to a museum.

While activities with the entire family is indispensible, individualized activities such as “date-night” are just as helpful. A “date” of one parent and one child doing something they want to do provides many benefits and special memories.

I wish you all luck in minimizing family rivalries and nurturing compassion, commitment, love and understanding that will last a lifetime.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is working on a PhD in Leadership studies at Gonzaga University. He can be reached at

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