Dr Richard C. Woolfson
When you have more than one child – and when the age gap between them is around two years, give or take a few months on either side – chances are they will start to compete with each other once the youngest has reached the age of three or four.
This competitiveness won’t be there all the time, of course, and may surface only on specific occasions. For instance, when they both play a game together or when they both share the same leisure interest. But when rivalry does arise, the family atmosphere changes from one of relaxation to one fraught with tension. The outcome of competition is generally happiness for one child and misery for the other.
Related: Reasons for sibling rivalry
You might be one of those parents who discourages competition between your children actively because you dislike the effect it has on them. Even so, you may still find that sibling rivalry emerges spontaneously. It seems that competitiveness between siblings can never be eliminated. However, you can help minimise its occurrence and impact.
WHY COMPETITIVENESS OCCURS
Competition between your children begins to emerge when your youngest is three or four years for a number of reasons, including:
1. Identity Your youngest child begins to establish her identity more firmly and part of this process involves comparing her abilities with those of others (especially siblings close to her in age). She wants to be better than her older brother, not because she dislikes him, but because that is one way of proving to herself that she is capable.
2. Interests With a small age gap of two years or less, both your children share similar interests and have a similar lifestyle. It’s only natural, then, that competition arises when both try to make progress individually in a shared activity.
3. Insecurity In a family with more than one child, each realises that mum and dad have limited time and resources to go round. As far as your children are concerned, attention to one means that there is less time for the other.
Related: 10 tips for sibling relationships
HOW TO STOP COMPETITIVENESS
Encourage separate interests. Where possible, direct your children towards separate interests. For instance, if one wants to attend gymnastics classes, the other could attend music lessons. This may not be convenient, but in the long term it reduces the chances of competitiveness arising.
Give each child your individual attention. Don’t force your children to compete with one another to gain your attention. Instead, make a special point of giving each child some individual attention every single day.
Value each child’s achievements. No matter how your children compare to one another – and you probably have found that they have their own strengths and weaknesses -– give each of them approval for their progress. Children want individual recognition for their efforts and attainments.
Provide opportunities for cooperation. Rivalry between your children is less likely when they are specifically given opportunities for cooperation. For instance, give them a shared chore that they have to complete together, such as setting cutlery on the table for the evening meal. The more cooperation, the better.
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