Question: I’m concerned about sibling rivalry between my two daughters. What are the areas of potential conflict that should be handled with care?
Answer: There are three areas that are most delicate.
First, children are extremely sensitive about the matter of physical attractiveness and body characteristics.
It is highly inflammatory to commend one child at the expense of the other. Suppose, for example, that Sharon is permitted to hear the casual remark about her sister: “Betty is sure going to be a gorgeous girl.”
The very fact that Sharon was not mentioned will probably establish the two girls as rivals. If there is a significant difference in beauty between the two, you can be assured that Sharon has already concluded, “Yeah, I’m the ugly one.” When her fears are then confirmed by her parents, resentment and jealousy are generated.
Beauty is the most significant factor in the self-esteem of Western children.
Anything that a parent utters on this subject within the hearing of children should be screened carefully. It has the power to make brothers and sisters hate one another.
Second, the matter of intelligence is another sensitive nerve to be handled with care. It is not uncommon to hear parents say in front of their children, “I think the younger boy is actually brighter than his brother.”
Adults find it difficult to comprehend how powerful that kind of assessment can be in a child’s mind. Even when the comments are unplanned and are spoken routinely, they convey how a child is seen within his family. We are all vulnerable to that bit of evidence.
Third, children (and especially boys) are extremely competitive with regard to athletic abilities.
Those who are slower, weaker and less coordinated than their brothers are rarely able to accept “second best” with grace and dignity.
Consider, for example, the following note given to me by the mother of two boys. It was written by her nine-year-old son to his eight-year-old brother the evening after the younger child had beaten him in a race.
I am the greatest and your the badest. And I can beat everybody in a race and you can’t beat anybody in a race. I’m the smartest and your the dumbest. I’m the best sport player and your the badest sport player. And your also a hog. I can beat anybody up. And that’s the truth. And that’s the end of this story.
This note is humorous to me because Richard’s motive was so poorly disguised.
He had been badly stung by his humiliation on the field of honor, so he came home and raised the battle flags. He will probably spend the next eight weeks looking for opportunities to fire torpedoes into Jim’s soft underbelly. Such is the nature of humankind.
Question: Can you give us a guideline for how much work children should be given to do?
Answer: There should be a healthy balance between work and play. Many farm children of the past had daily chores that made life pretty difficult.
Early in the morning and again after school they would feed the pigs, gather the eggs, milk the cows and bring in the wood.
Little time was left for fun, and childhood became a pretty drab experience. That was an extreme position, and I certainly don’t favor its return.
Contrast that workaday responsibility with some families today that require nothing of children — not even asking them to take out the trash, water the lawn or feed the cat.
Both extremes, as usual, are harmful to the child.
The logical middle ground can be found by giving a boy or girl an exposure to responsibility and work but preserving time for play and fun.
The amount of time devoted to each activity should vary with the age of the child, gradually requiring more work as he or she grows older.
James Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).