Siblings Without Rivalry - Critical summary review - Adele Faber

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Siblings Without Rivalry - critical summary review

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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0393342212

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Critical summary review

As difficult as it might be to raise one child into a healthy, smart and independent adult, it seems to be even more difficult to achieve that when another child comes along the way — and sometimes, even another, and another, and another ... How can you, as a parent, find ways to reassure each of your children that they are safe, special and beloved? How do you manage your time so that you can allocate it properly among your children? How can you be sure that you’ve never neglected the needs of any of your kids, while simultaneously appropriately tending to the needs of the more needful among them?

While Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish were writing their extremely successful 1980 “parenting bible,” “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,” they realized that to address questions such as those above and do proper justice to the problem of raising siblings, they’d have to give it a book of its own. And that’s how “Siblings Without Rivalry” was born — their best-selling “guide to reducing hostility and generating goodwill between siblings.” As we’ve done with so many other books, we read it, reread it, and summed it up in about 2,000 words, so that you can be richer for its wisdom in a little over ten minutes. Help yourself.

Not till the bad feelings come out …

Though it might be difficult sometimes to understand why siblings have such hateful feelings toward each other, a simple thought experiment should help you put yourself in their shoes. Imagine, for example, that your spouse comes back one day from a work trip and tells you something along the lines of, “Honey, I love you so much that I’ve decided to have another partner just like you!” How would that make you feel? After all, if you’re so perfect, you should be enough. If you’re not enough, well, then there must be something wrong with you.

This is, basically, how all firstborns instinctively feel soon after the arrival of their sibling. It is your job as a parent to alleviate their fears and doubts — not by dismissing them as irrational right off the bat, but by acknowledging them wholeheartedly with words that properly identify them, and creative activities that transform them into symbolic outlets.

  • Acknowledge your child’s negative feelings. When your child says something like, “You’re always with the baby” or “Ma, Johnny said I am a moron!” do not dismiss them by rationalizing your and everyone else’s behavior into sentences such as, “No, I’m not — I just read that book to you!” or “Oh, just ignore him, he does that sometimes.” Instead, make certain your child knows that you’re capable of acknowledging their feelings by putting them into clear and comprehensible words: “Oh, you don’t like my spending so much time with her” and “You feel he does it just to irritate you, right?” are much better responses to the complaints just described.
  • Give children in fantasy what they don’t have in reality. It is important for your child to feel like you get them, so rephrasing their complaints into wishful thoughts is sometimes  enough to calm them. Next time, instead of saying, “You don’t mean that. You know you love her” to your firstborn’s regular protest of “Send the baby back!” you can just say something like, “You don’t want her here. From time to time, you wish she’d go away.” That should open a calm and comforting discussion — for the benefit of both of you.
  • Help children channel their hostile feelings into symbolic or creative outlets. Just like adults, children are capable of dealing with their negative feelings by channeling them into creative outlets. The problem is that they don’t really know how to do this, so you need to show them. “Look what she did to my shirt!” your son might say. “I’d like to take one of my sister’s and rip it up!” Instead of bursting into expletives or saying something like “That’s sick,” suggest a symbolic alternative to him, such as drawing an image of the act or writing a letter, openly articulating your son’s anger and rage.
  • Stop hurtful behavior. In order to prevent hurtful behavior between your children, as difficult as it might sometimes be, you need to refrain from attacking the attacker, Show them better ways of expressing their anger. Instead of responding with, “What the heck do you think you are doing?!” to one of your children after they attempt to punch the other, calmly say something like, “No punching! Tell your brother how angry you are with words, not fists.”

How to avoid the perils of comparison

“Children often experience praise of a brother or a sister as a put down of themselves,” write Faber and Mazlish. “It’s a good idea to save our enthusiastic comments for the ear of the deserving child.” In other words, by making comparisons (even when favorable), we are not helping at all. On the contrary, we merely contribute to the already-existing rivalry between the siblings. Use descriptions instead — of the feelings when the comparison is favorable, and of the problem when it is not.

  • Avoid favorable comparisons by describing what you see and feel. Saying things like “I wish your brother had your study habits. He can’t concentrate for more than a minute” is never a good idea, even if done in secret: the praised sibling will either start feeling they are better than the other or start crumbling under the pressure to live up to the expectations. That’s why it is important to always resist the urge to make comparisons between your children and, instead, focus on acknowledging their favorable traits by describing them in words and saying how you feel about them: “You’ve been going over that vocabulary list for a half hour! That makes me so happy!”
  • Avoid unfavorable comparisons by describing the problem. In the case of unfavorable comparisons, it is key to focus on the problem and leave out the example-behavior. Criticisms such as, “Why can’t you act like your sister?” may incite your other child to choose to “excel at being bad if they can’t excel at being good.” Quite the opposite, merely saying something like, “I see a jacket on the floor” or “Your guitar teacher has been waiting 10 minutes” should prompt your child to take responsibility and pay closer attention to the problem in question.

Why equal is less for siblings

Marx’s somewhat infamous slogan "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" might have failed as a just-too-utopian political creed, but it encapsulates a quite-useful and even recommendable parenting strategy to deal with siblings. To love them equally is not only impossible in practice, but also quite wrong: in the case of siblings, loving them equally will always mean loving them less than they deserve. Because even if you resist the urge to make comparisons, they never will. 

Children don’t want to be treated equally. They want to be — and should be — treated uniquely. So, try to focus on each of your children’s individual needs, and always allocate your time appropriately. Sometimes, this might mean spending more time with one of the siblings, but that is something you shouldn’t worry about. Needs are temporary, and some are more immediate than others. “By valuing and being partial to each child’s individuality,” write Faber and Mazlish, “we make sure that each of our children feels like a number one child.”

  • Instead of giving equal time, give time according to need. If one of your children complains about you giving the larger two of the available pancakes to their sibling, do not try to make amends by redistributing or explaining. Instead, offer the unsatisfied kid an alternative: “If you are still hungry, I can make you one more pancake after you’ve finished those. Does that sound like a good idea?”
  • Instead of claiming equal love, show children how they’re loved uniquely. Whether it’s true or not, your children will never believe you that you love each of them equally. So, don’t say that when one of them asks you who you love the most. Instead, concentrate on that child’s unique traits and tell them what makes them special to you.
  • Equal time can feel like less — give time in terms of need. If one of your children protests against you spending a lot of time with another at the time of the latter’s birthday, don’t say, “I’ll be right with you” and interrupt everything. Instead, try to make it clear that you are aware of your behavior and that it is temporary. Say, “You’re right. “I have been spending a lot of time with your sister. Her birthday party is important. There’s lots to plan, and I want to give it my full attention. I know it’s not easy to wait. When I’m finished, I want to hear what you have on your mind.”

Do not lock your children into roles

Since humans are multidimensional beings, it is our duty as parents to prepare our children for a life of many roles. Unfortunately, most of the time, we do the opposite, demarcating their existence within the known limits of a given role. As true as they might sound, phrases such as, “Look how much he loves numbers! He’s going to be a mathematician,” “She’s a born leader,” or “He’s too wild and spontaneous to be satisfied with an office job” — even when uttered casually and innocuously — set some kind of expectations for your children and implicitly direct their development. It’s not only important for you to never become the one to lock your child into a role, but it is also vital to try to prevent anyone (your relatives, your friends, your children’s siblings) from doing precisely that. Here are some strategies to use in the most common situations:

  • Attend to the injured party. Instead of attacking the attacker and blaming them for their behavior, always try to attend to the injured party.
  • No more bullies. When the other siblings treat one of your children as a bully, try to give them a new view of their sibling at every possible opportunity. For the child that has  locked themselves into such a role, help them see their capacity for kindness. 
  • No more victims. Use similar strategies to the ones above. Don’t ever treat your child as a victim, saying things such as, “Poor baby. Is your brother being mean again?” Instead, teach them how to stand up for themselves.
  • No more problem children. Instead of focusing on your children’s disabilities, focus on their abilities.  “Problem children” should be given a chance to unshackle themselves from the chains of their unfortunate roles. Because of this, you need to try to accept their frustration, appreciate them for their accomplishments, and guide them toward the solutions to their problems by merely describing the latter.

How to handle the fights and the difficult conflicts

As anyone with more than one child at home knows, siblings tend to fight — often. To handle normal bickering, just ignore it by telling yourself that your children are doing an exercise in conflict resolution. To handle something a bit more serious, follow these five steps:

  • Acknowledge the anger: “Wow, you two sound really mad at each other!”
  • Listen to each side with respect: “So you wanted this and you wanted that … OK.”
  • Show appreciation for the difficulty of the problem: “My, this is a really tough situation.”
  • Express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution: “I know you two will be able to work it out.”
  • Leave the room.

Final Notes

Even though it is not as all-encompassing and as thorough as Faber and Mazlish’s first collaboration — and even though it might sometimes feel familiar to dedicated practitioners of the guidelines laid out in “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” — “Siblings Without Rivalry” steadfastly follows the outline of the writing duo’s award-winning debut and lives up to the expectations set in the title.

Once again overflowing with anecdotes and comics, checklists and a wealth of practical advice, “Siblings Without Rivalry” is still the book most parents turn to when in need of help with their children, more than three decades after it was first published. 

And that should tell you something, shouldn’t it?

12min Tip

Never tell your children that you love them equally, regardless of how true that sentence is — they will never believe you. Instead, tell them they are special to you and list all the unique reasons why you love them.

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Who wrote the book?

Adele Faber is known for her expertise on facilitating communication between children and adults - and praised for her unique and effective strategies that are implemented worldwide by parents and professional... (Read more)

Elaine Mazlish is the co-founder of a website that deals with the complexities in communication between both children and adults. She along with... (Read more)

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