As I headed out the door earlier this week to speak to a group about sibling rivalry, I asked my fourteen-year-old daughter, as I always do, if there was anything she thought parents should know about the topic of the day.
“Sibling rivalry?” asked my honor student, bewildered. “What’s that?”
“When brothers and sisters feel like they have to compete for their parents’ attention,” I explained.
“Compete!?!” she snorted. “That’s ridiculous! I know I am your favorite, and I can have your attention any time I want it!”
I was sort of taken aback for a moment, not knowing quite what to say to that. Then I quickly decided that if my son, who is the older one, says the same thing, then we are All Good. It’s not a problem if they both think they can get what they need from me when they need it!
As I was processing this, she said, “But, seriously, Mom ... you love us so equally it’s almost painful.” (Since birth she’s displayed a Diva-sized appetite for attention and loyalty. She’s got the same birthday as Britney Spears, if that tells you anything ...)
“Equal” is a concept I simply never associated with love. For some reason, it just never occurred to me to worry about sibling rivalry. We baked a cake the day she was born to celebrate him becoming a big brother. Soon I was wearing her in the baby sling most of the day, and life sort of went on as usual for my son.
I didn’t make a big deal about special time, equal time, or, really ... equal anything. Doing that would have required scorekeeping, which I am notoriously bad at. There’s no little chalkboard inside my head. (It’s probably a learning disability or something.) So instead, I just tried to be there for both of them in the ways they each needed. That, I could handle.
I guess I have sort of a radical theory on the whole sibling rivalry thing: Perhaps if parents don’t tie themselves into knots trying to make everything equal, or trying to “make it up” to the older child, but instead focus on meeting individual needs as they arise, then the kids won’t get so caught up in scorekeeping and comparisons, or see each other as rivals.
I’m not so sure the older kid actually loses out on as much as many parents seem to think anyway. When his sister was born, my son gained a worshipper, a follower, a fan for life, and an ever-ready playmate who adored him and was at his beck and call. Is this supposed to be a bad thing?
Before she came on the scene, no one else had ever looked up to him with absolute trust and unshakable admiration. No one smiled with their whole body and lit up like a Christmas tree when he came in the room. No one followed his every move with rapt attention. Whatever he lost in terms of my attention, and I don’t believe it was actually all that much, he more than regained in her attention.
Of course, as always, we need to meet our children where they are. If the older sibling expresses disdain for the younger, we just listen, without correcting or judging his feelings. Feelings are only feelings after all - they come and go, and move along much more quickly when neutrally acknowledged by a loving and caring parent who does not freak out.
But we don’t need to feel guilty about “dethroning” our eldest. That throne gets kinda lonely after a while. Bringing home a sibling changes things—for the better and for the worse, but mostly for the better.
If he sometimes wants the baby to go back to the hospital, empathize with him. Babies are noisy and messy and demanding, and it’s okay for parents to admit that. We all feel ambivalent about change. That’s normal. Letting your child know it’s okay to feel that way will help him make peace with his own feelings, and he will relax when he sees you are not scared or angry.
We set appropriate boundaries on actions, of course, so we won’t let him act out his feelings by hurting the baby. But talking, even yelling, about feelings ... well ... that’s a mighty fine way to release them.
It’s repression that drives this stuff underground, where it festers and comes out as rage. Instead of trying to convince him that he loves her, or that things aren’t as bad as he thinks, or that you will spend some alone time with him next Tuesday to make it up to him, try just bringing it out into the daylight. Talk about the hassles together. Laugh about it. Grieve the changes together if that’s what needs to happen.
But leave guilt out of the equation. It’s just not necessary. You have enough to handle already.