What is the hardest thing to share, especially when you are very young? Your parents. They are the people you count on when you are not yet independent. Parents provide the various kinds of sustenance to survive and thrive. Children are housed, fed, protected, indulged, entertained, educated and loved.
The first child, once dubbed “the royal experiment”, has had it all – time, attention and love. Then, along comes a tiny interloper who has even more needs. So, #1 needs to share what was once all theirs. At times, they need to be more patient, more quiet and more independent. What’s more difficult to share than one’s prized possession? That’s what we are to our small children. Although it’s our doing to bring a sibling into our home, it’s easier for #1 to pick on someone smaller – hence, sibling rivalry.
For some children, it’s easier when the newborn just eats and sleeps. Depending on the age and personality of the first child, they may be uninterested in the little bundle or want to hold and play with the new arrival. As time passes, things change. With each new phase of development that the baby achieves, it can be more fun…. or not, for the first child. For example, a newborn is not going to interfere with big brother’s possessions but a crawling, and then, walking toddler will want to imitate their older sibling and play with their things. Aging up, younger children want to hang out with the older sibling and his/her friends. Imitation is flattery but #1 may not see it that way!
When handled well, rivalry has benefits. Children act on their wants and needs, and eventually learn to negotiate and work out a solution. These abilities will come in handy as they mature. Parents can help teach those skills, indirectly and directly. Children observe parents and imitate. They watch how parents cope with differences, with their spouse, their own parents, friends, etc. Do they yell or use the ‘silent treatment’? When parents are able to have a respectful discussion and come to a compromise, observing them is a learning experience for their offspring. More directly, parents can help their young children by explaining the differences in the abilities of each of them [to the other] when they are having a problem. “Your sister is too young to know when she hurts you” or “ Your brother really needs some quiet time to be able to really talk…”.
While there may be resentment in needing to share, there is also the opportunity to have a sibling who is closer in size, dependence, levels of energy and enjoyment than the adults. There will be things to giggle about that grownups just don’t get. They may also learn to team up with each other in order to bargain with parents. Although we see the rivalry, most older siblings would defend and protect their younger siblings if they were bullied. Parents are relieved and entertained watching their children play well together and be affectionate. It’s comforting to imagine their future adult friendship when we are gone.
We cringe at the rivalry and rejoice in the revelry. Both are essential.