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How to Reduce Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry is a source of aggravation for most parents. It is a completely natural, unavoidable, result of children competing for recognition and learning to deal with jealousy. As far as I can tell, it is not really possible to eliminate sibling rivalry. Possibly that might not even be a good idea.

There are many things you can do to reduce sibling rivalry: suppress favoritism, resist the urge to compare children aloud, acknowledge hurt feelings, and try to avoid labeling your child/children. I’ve done all these things to the best of my ability and yet, by the end of the day I am still drained from listening to all the fighting between my two boys, age 4 and 8. They are young yet I’ve been told, it will actually get much worse with time. Hmm… not really a concept I can live with.

Then one day I had this thought and I don’t know where it came from. But my thought was that it might be possible to channel some of that rivalry into healthy competition. The main difference between the two being that one is negative and the other can be positive. Or maybe they are the same thing and the difference is all in my head. I believe healthy competition involves a degree of respect for your opponent, while rivalry does not. My hope was that if I could transfer some of that negative energy into something positive, perhaps our days would be slightly less noisy and stress levels slightly lower at the end of the day. Since I am a scientist by nature, I thought I would run a little experiment on the boys to test this theory out. Here is my experimental design, results and analysis:

Hypothesis (question to test). Is it possible to reduce sibling rivalry by introducing outlets for healthy competition?

Methods. Do not tell subjects they are being experimented upon, as this could easily affect the outcome of said experiments. Identify 3 issues where friendly competition can be introduced in unobtrusive manner. Identify 3 rewards to be the immediate result of each minor competition. To maintain equal opportunity, do not warn subjects of contests or rewards prior to. Afterwards casually explain why they are being rewarded but do not over-emphasize. Duration: 4 days. Measurements: stress levels being subjective, rate will be assessed on relative eagerness to do it all over again the next day on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the least enthusiastic.

Contests and rewards

1. Preparing to leave in the morning. Whoever has been the most on task in getting ready to get out the door will get to decide which route we take to school, when walking the dog, or whatever our plan is for that morning. Yes, this is something they typically argue over. On task includes but is not limited to brushing teeth well the first time, combing hair in semi-respectable manner, cleaning up toothpaste off counter, putting on socks that match, choosing weather-appropriate coat and shoes, remembering lunch and homework in backpack, remembering backpack.

2. Practicing good table manners. Whoever has the best manners for dinner will be allowed to pick the dessert for everyone. Good manners includes putting only one bite of food in mouth at time, chewing with mouth closed, not talking with mouth full, using napkin instead of shirt, sitting for entire meal, not complaining about taste, texture or color of food.

3. Preparing for bedtime. Whoever has been the most on task in getting ready for bedtime will be allowed to pick the story that is read. Most on task, with the least amount of resistance. Resistance includes but is not limited to whining, fighting over who gets to brush teeth first, claiming to be hungry at last minute, starting chores that should have been done earlier in the day and suddenly remembering homework that needs doing.


Day one

Getting ready to leave in the morning: The first day my youngest won the competition simply by chance. Neither of them knew they were in it, but he was in top form. He happily chose the walking route.

Good manners at the table: Again by surprise, the younger one won the competition. He chose popcorn and both were winners in the end.

Getting ready for bed: The youngest dislikes going to bed. The older one would have had a hard time not winning this contest. He picked a book suitable (not scary) for both of them.

Analysis: still a lot of fighting, though with some surprised moments of silence (and thought?). Probably fell asleep before the kids did. Too tired to think about the following day, overall eagerness 0.

Day two

Getting ready to leave in the morning: Surprise, the oldest remembered and was ready, quietly waiting by the door, shoes and backpack on before the younger even realized it was time to get ready to go. Where did he come from?

Good manners at the dinner table: boys started pointing out the other’s bad manners, led to hard feelings and a few tears; neither got dessert.

Getting ready for bed: The youngest mistakenly thought it would be his turn for choosing a book, but was not overly upset once he understood the reason it wasn’t. His response – quiet determination.

Analysis: perhaps the older is being a bit nicer, more forgiving than usual. Possible wishful thinking on my part. Am curious what tomorrow will bring. It is easier to be less stressed when I feel more like an observer than a victim. Hmm… the experiment is biased already. Overall eagerness 4.

Day three

Getting ready to leave in the morning: once again, the oldest is on top of his game. The younger one tries to keep up but is not as fast as his older brother. Still, no one brags or is upset when they win or lose. They are both fine with the results. Strange.

Good manners at the table: no longer pointing out each other’s mistakes verbally, they are going to wild extremes to do so without words. Frustrating and hilarious at the same time. No dessert for either one.

Getting ready for bed: older one reverted to his other, unfocused self. Younger one earned the book choice award by default. Very proud of himself. Both good sports about the end result.

Analysis: Definitely less fighting. Need a way to measure extent of fighting accurately. Overall eagerness 3. Would be 5 except for the table manners aspect of research.

Day four

Getting ready to leave in the morning: oldest distracted by new library book. Younger one wins this one. Oldest one is actually happy for him. Did he lose on purpose? Seems unlikely.

Good manners at the table: had little faith in this one going in on the fourth day. Combined verbal and nonverbal tattling with occasional bickering about stupid and random things. No dessert.

Getting ready for bed: older one offered to let the younger one pick book before bedtime preparation even got started. Altruism or hidden agenda?

Analsysis: Not fighting as much. Possibly too good to be true. Wondering what the catch is to all this good behavior. Overall eagerness 5. It is over and everyone survived.


Getting ready to leave in the morning: competition and need for it may be based on how well they slept the previous night, what side of the bed they woke up on, what was the first interaction with another human they had upon waking, what the plans were for the rest of the day and a huge list of other unknown factors. Despite these unknowns, it is working. Will continue this indefinitely.

Good manners at dinner table: too long of a time period for contest. Possible requirement for energy expenditure during contests for successful participation. Poor experimental design. Will not be continuing this aspect of experiment.

Getting ready for bed: children can get along if they want to. The big question is, why did this little experiment make them want to? Possibly drawing conclusions too early. Continue this line of research and analyze at later date.

Changing perspective, stepping back from problem and looking at it a different way is a huge source of bias, but highly effective. Attitude toward following day generally positive. Highly possible that this MIGHT just be working. Given an outlet for their need to compete, there may be less sibling rivalry when this need is channeled into different venues. Seems unlikely that years of frustration and stress could be so easily resolved. Perhaps it is the novelty of the experiments that is producing results and not experiments themselves.


I think there is real value in re-directing the usually negative aspects of sibling rivalry into something else. It is more a matter of guiding these innate feelings into a healthy outlet. A different way of thinking, for us at least. Will keep it up as long as possible.

If you have any tips, stories or comments on sibling rivalry, I would love to hear from you!