Making Peace With Sibling Rilvary

Posted on July 27, 2011 by


sibling rivalry

My son and daughter are twenty–five months apart. I have spent time worrying about their future relationship. Fretting about whether or not they will support and care and love each other as grown ups. It’s a stretch to imagine them traveling to see each other let alone picking up a phone to call each other when they’re at war over the remote control.

My son, not an academic high roller, often receives honors for his artistic prowess and sometimes just because he tries hard and an engineering teacher likes his catapult. I was surprised when his sister said she wished, just for once, she’d get an award. She, who breezes through school. I was sure she’d be purely thrilled for him. But, she wasn’t. She wanted an award too. She wanted whatever he had.

Both of my children keep a tally. My son’s is less overt. When his ledger shows his sister to be receiving more of the riches, his mood becomes sulky. My daughter keeps a scale on the table and weighs each bit of parental affection or praise. She keeps a scorecard next to the scale. Nowhere else in life is it remotely acceptable to expose your jealousy in the raw. As siblings it’s a to-be-expected-behavior.  That’s not to say we don’t all feel pangs of jealousy and rivalry with people other than our siblings. But with our siblings it’s got a name, like a syndrome, and that legitimizes the battle. A battle that hopefully reaches a peaceful conclusion in adulthood.

When my children were little, I would buy them each a gift on the others birthday. So they wouldn’t feel left out. When I think about that, what at the time felt sensitive and correct, I cringe. Learning to celebrate each other is a life skill. Learning to watch another enjoy their birthday or their award, they are one in the same. Will they grow up to be friends? I think about his often. My ex-husband and his siblings are very close. I found their closeness enviable when I first joined their family. When I left their family, their closeness, which I thought I was part of, was removed. I discovered it had been a false sense of inclusion or at least, conditional. I was not their sibling. I was their brother’s wife.

At the same time I grappled with the conditional terms of ex-sister-in-laws, my own sister and I rediscovered each other. Siblings can take long breaks. But it’s a non-negotiable tie. Like who you pull for parents. I was able to look at my sister in a brand new light. I had never truly cleared the haze from our childhood relationship. My sister was a world traveling exotic beauty. I was a stout anxiety-riddled little sister. My sister was a good student. I was a mediocre student. Obviously, there was some one-sided sibling rivalry. My sister, five years older, was unaware of my perception of her. And I was unaware of her struggles because, well, she was perfect. I am keenly aware of how my children’s individual strengths can feel like ego blows to the other. How one child’s stellar report card can feel like a pinch to the other. But I am sure that the right thing is not to protect them from feelings of envy or comparison or immobilizing jealousy.  But to acknowledge those feelings can exist beside learning  to honor the hard work of another. Learning to mitigate the inclination to translate another’s success into a personal failure is a life skill extraordinaire. How did I reach such clarity you might ask, as you read this, green with envy?

Well, in the end, after trying for equality, my cousin Judy set me straight. She told me that she’d told her three children that they were all different. That they all had different needs and different strengths. And that they would all get what they needed and since they were all different, their piles of getting would always and forever look different. Bam, end of story. Judy is my parenting guru. She is wise and generous with her hard-earned secrets. She successfully raised three children who are now responsible, happy adults. They cheer each other on and keep in touch with each other.  There is no question that they will catch each other when life tips them over. And that, is a job well done. Here’s to Judy.

(Image: CarbonNYC)