Managing Competition Between Siblings

Any parent of two or more children is more than familiar with sibling competition. It can be exhausting for parents, but it can provide valuable lessons for children.

By Momentous Institute | Jul 20, 2021
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Any parent of two or more children is more than familiar with sibling competition. Who is taller, who has the best hair, who can jump the farthest, who is the better student, who is funnier, who can sing best… you know the routine. Anything can become fodder for competition with siblings! Competition seems to bubble up even more with siblings who are close in age, the same gender, or members of the same social groups. Sibling competition can be exhausting for parents. Why must everything be a competition? But at the same time, it can provide valuable lessons for children. Let’s explore this a little more.

Competition is a part of life. We are all competitive in different ways, but we all use competition in our workplace, in our social lives, our relationships. We see competition played out on the national stage with athletics and elections. We use competition to get better jobs or higher salaries, and we even see it in things as simple as board games or fun activities at home.

Sibling competition is basically practice for the real world of competition. And yes, it can be annoying to hear your kids bicker over who has the better shoes, but a simple reframe can help us think of these small competitions as practice for bigger competition in life. So rather than shutting down all sibling competition, we can encourage healthy, productive, and kind competition.

The first step is to chase the why. Most children who are competing with siblings are actually getting at something more than just the topic at hand. In fact, it usually boils down to one thing: attention. Often, attention from parents. When two kids are fighting over who is the least messy, they may be searching for your approval. When one child is bringing home awards from school and needing to be recognized for them, and the other child starts listing off his accomplishments, that’s often less about each other and more about a need for the parents to honor and recognize each of them.

When we chase the why, we can respond by addressing the root issue rather than the one that is presenting itself. So instead of getting involved in the conflict over who has the cleaner room, we can make a mental note to praise each child individually for their hard work in keeping their room clean. When two children are showing off their awards, we can work to create a family space to showcase accomplishments and put them on display.

When competition between siblings does happen, parents should allow it to continue as long as it is kind. Rules such as no name calling, no shame or disrespect can make sure that any competition doesn’t turn ugly. But children can learn to be playful and kind while still competing with each other. Ultimately, most small sibling rivalries will be trivial and will not matter in a week. They aren’t worth the effort of parents to step in and manage every single one. As long as the behavior is kind, parents can allow children to work through them without intervening.

Another thing to be mindful of is to make sure we, as parents, are not accidentally creating competitions between children. One way that parents do this without realizing it is by paying more attention to one child’s strengths. For example, a parent may say, “Look at Gracie! She’s so great, finishing up her homework before dinner every evening.” While it is a great idea to praise your child for good behavior, it can accidentally make a sibling feel bad and leave them thinking, “She’s getting all the attention because she’s so good at finishing her homework and I’m not. So now what am I going to do to get attention?” Making sure that we spend time talking about each of our child’s strengths will limit the amount of competition that bubbles up.

Healthy competition between siblings can be positive. It can drive children to improve behavior, to increase awareness and empathy, and can teach them valuable life lessons. When done well, sibling competition can pave the way for competition that kids will need later in life to succeed in the world. As long as it is done with kindness and compassion for all involved, healthy competition should be fostered, not eliminated.