Siblings Without Rivalry is by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. If you missed my review of How to Talk… you can check it out here to get a sense of the prevailing philosophy behind these books. In a nutshell, Faber and Mazlish promote empathetic communication between parents and children and collaborative solutions to conflict.
While Siblings Without Rivalry is NOT a book centered upon the unique challenges of raising multiples, its sibling-centric focus does make it very applicable to most parents of twins. The authors wrote it as a follow-up to How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk because they felt they had not had sufficient space to fully explore sibling conflict in the first book.
The most important prevailing theme throughout Siblings Without Rivalry is that parents should acknowledge and respect children’s feelings, particularly toward their siblings, without minimizing or sugar-coating them. If a child says, “I hate Owen! He always ruins my stuff,” then rather than saying, “Be nice to your brother,” a parent might say, “You really seem angry at your brother! You wish he’d take better care of your things.” Allowing both children to express anger and validating their feelings can help them to work through the conflict on their own, increasing both their autonomy and their sense of belonging within their family.
Other Interesting Takeaways:
- Wherever possible, parents should stay out of conflicts between children, and instead provide them with tools to work through their disagreement together. The general formula prescribed for intervening when necessary is:
- Acknowledge each side’s anger: “John, you want to watch Curious George, but Kristen wants to watch Elmo, is that right?”
- Appreciate both sides of the conflict, and express faith in their ability to come to a fair solution: “Wow, that’s tough. There’s only one television, and both of you want to use it. But I know you can come up with a solution that works for both of you.”
- Walk away.
I admit that I find this approach a little hard to fathom. My children are two, and while they can express (loudly) what they want, they don’t grasp the idea of compromise. Or patience. But I really like the idea of giving kids the tools to work out problems on their own without requiring Mom or Dad to resolve them. (Note that the book DOES provide a different approach for handling violent conflicts. A parent would never be advised to walk away from a fight that could cause real harm to either child.)
- Resist the urge to compare. I think that as twin parents, we generally know better than to do this, but comparisons can pop up in unexpected places sometimes. (“Look, your sister ate all HER food…” for example, or “Your sister put HER jacket away…”) Rather than comparing one child to another (“Why can’t you put away your toys like your brother does?”) describe the behavior that you see: “I see your blocks on the floor.” Or describe what needs to be done: “Please put your blocks away.” Likewise, be careful of comparing one child favorably to the other. Rather than saying, “You are a better eater than your sister,” describe the behavior that pleases you: “I see that you ate all your carrots!”
- Don’t allow your children to be locked into roles or personas. People seem really inclined to do this with twins. People often make references to one of my twins as “the shy one” or “the artistic one”. And when they were small babies, a stranger once asked me which was “the good one.” Never tell your kid, “Why are you always so mean to your brother?” The child walks away thinking, “Yes, I know I’m mean.” A better approach is to set a positive expectation for the child: “I know you can be kind to your brother.”
- Rather than treating children equally, strive to treat them uniquely, according to their needs. Instead of focusing on doling out identical servings of food, ask, “Do you want a little bit of _________ or a lot?” Instead of saying, “I love you both the same,” say, “I love you because you’re you! No one could ever take your place.” Give time according to need, as well. “I’m spending a lot of time helping your brother with his project right now. It’s important to him. As soon as I’m finished, I want to hear what’s important to you.” And then tune in and engage with the other child.
This idea really resonated strongly with me. I remember being aware that one of my children really “needed” me more when they were small babies, while the other was more independent and able to accept help from others. I felt guilty about that at the time, feeling that I had somehow neglected the more independent child or affected our bonding. Now, with the space of time, I’m aware of how my relationships with my children have evolved, and I worry less about how much time I’ve spent with each and more about the quality of the time I’ve spent with each.
- Set expectations about boundaries of conflict. If kids hit or use name calling, say something like: “You sound mad, but I expect you to talk to your brother without hitting or calling him names.” And then provide some alternative strategies. “Rather than hitting, draw me a picture of how you feel.” “Rather than hitting your brother, go hit this pillow.” But note that insisting upon good feelings between children can lead to bad feelings or lingering resentment. Allowing bad feelings between children can help them to work through those feelings and have a more positive relationship in the long run.
As with How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, a few ideas in the book made me think, “Well, that sounds nice, but what do you do when THAT doesn’t work?” In general, though, I found Faber and Mazlish’s philosophies on how to treat and talk to siblings to be intuitive and thought-provoking. I was even able to (tactfully) suggest alternative ways to think about and talk to my twins to other family members. All in all, I found it to be a very interesting and helpful read, but as with any parenting book, one should approach it willing to apply what makes sense and ignore what doesn’t.