Sibling Rivalry: The Big Sister Perspective

A discussion about making sure we don't fuel the fire of Sibling Rivalry....

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As a PSP member writes:


"One of the best pieces of advice someone gave me when I had my second daughter was "keep your birth order biases in check. It's easy to side with the kid who is the same birth order as you but you need to be aware of theb whole story and not play to your experiences." I'm a little sister and have a big sister less than 2 years older than me (and 3 brothers older than us, but that's irrelevant at this point).
I've been trying to keep things in check for the last 5 or so years with my two daughters but since I don't know the "Big Sister" perspective it's getting harder and harder for me NOT to side with my birth order sidekick (my younger daughter). So I see my older daughter leading ('bossing") my younger daughter's play behavior and it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My older daughter has been super great at allowing my younger daughter to join in her playdates, but there are more and more comments like "X and Samantha aren't letting me play with them." My younger daughter can hold her own for the most part, but I can see the tension growing as they get older.
Are there any big sisters out there who can help me gain BIG SISTER perspective? Any tricks of the trade other than "one person gets to cut the piece of gum in half and the other chooses first"? Are there any sibling books that give advice on how to create an atmosphere where sisters stay friends and not rivals? Any help from younger/older/middle/only children is greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance!
(#5 on the sibling food chain)"


PSP member replies:


"Siblings Without Rivalry is a good place to look.  It's by the same authors as How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk...  I've read it many times and there's always some kernel that's helpful.  Also, I can tell you as an older sister that it's important to remember that older sisters do need their own space, own friends sometimes. And it's difficult when younger ones seem to get more accommodations, attention, and more love for being cute and more dependent...  As an older sib it's hard not to read even developmentally appropriate differences in parenting as meaning that the younger is favored.  Of course, the fact that you're thinking about all of this is the most important step to making it better!"


"I'm also a big sister, by 2.5 years. There were a few things my mom did that definitely helped in terms of playdates - one was to schedule as many "double-dates" as she could, where we each had a friemd over at the same time. It helped because neither one was in the other's space (I will say that when my sister had a playdate and I didn't, I had no interest in playing with them, but the same could not be said for the times I had a playdate and my sister was dateless!). My mother and father also made sure to do things with us separately as well as together, without making a big deal out of it. My sister and I shared a room for a number of years, which had both advantages and disadvantages, but some of my fondest memories were of talking with her in the bunk beds after lights out. We were also given separate rooms when I was 8 or 9, which was a good time to move us apart. I was definitely bossy towards my sister, and she was very good at playing the victim, but my parents didn't fool around with much "she said she said" and often punished us both equally if we were fighting, which I actually think was pretty fair since often we were both being jerks in different ways. My mother's preferred form of punishment was to have us sit opposite to each other for 10 minutes without talking or moving. By the time our "punishment" was over we were often making silly faces at each other and had forgotten what we were mad about in the first place.
I would like to provide some reassurance for those parents with daughters who are experiencing tension. My sister and I fought like cats and dogs throughout a lot of our childhood and teenage years - she could (and did) push my buttons like nobody else. It was impossible for us to be friends at times (remember, you get to choose your friends but you can't choose your family). We were sometimes absolutely cruel to each other and a few of our fights were pretty legendary. But after she went to college we both calmed down, and now I can say without reservation that she is my best friend. We talk to each other at least every other day, and we share a lot together. We are each other's sounding board, advice-giver, and overall rock (this was vital when our father died a couple of years ago). I think that sister relationships have the possibility of being extremely intense, especially if one sibling is more independent and the other is more clingy (I was a prickly pear, but my sister would have velcroed herself to me if she could have). This intensity can cause parents to fear their daughters will never get along, and while that may sometimes happen, in my experience with my sister the fighting and rivalry does mellow over time and can develop into the kind of closeness that is supportive and healthy. And those horrible fights that we had when we were younger are now fodder for the kind of remembrances that leave us both gasping for air from laughing so hard. So there's that, too!"


"I'd strongly recommend the book "Siblings without Rivalry" by Faber and Mazlish. It is really on target and has lots of specific suggestions on how to deal with very common issues. It's made a big difference in our house!"


 "After reading some of those replies I took away some perspective, but my situation is slightly different. I am an only child who always considered myself having had siblings through my cousins who I spent an exceptional amount of time with in long durations, and for most of my childhood. Now that I'm the parent of a 5 year old and a 2 1/2 year old I realize I'm in unchartered territory. Aside from the generalization of just having a 2 year old brings, I have to interject to say that my 2 1/2 year old is very mature. She's very verbal, and has been speaking in full sentences since 18 months. She has a more extroverted personality, and at times seems more fearless than her brother. She's also very head strong by nature. My son is a pretty carefree guy who just seems to enjoy life, almost having too much energy for me. He's also more attached to mommy and daddy emotionally whereas, my daughter loves us, but it's because we fulfill her needs :-) Because my son is so carefree it's sometimes hard to communicate with him because he's not into explanations, just what he wants and what he thinks. My daughter is a little tornado. I've never seen such self confidence in a young child, she is very aware of what she wants. With that being said I've got a mosh pot of stuff going on here. The fighting can be triggered by various things. I'm a pretty calm easy going person which means I just want peace and quiet. Sometimes my son has to be the heavy because I just want quiet. I at other times find myself yelling which I don't like because I'm not a yeller by nature. I know I'm being vague, but there's not one particular problem in terms of behavior that I'm dealing with. I'm mostly unsure of what is typical. I'm not sure what to make a big deal out of and what not to. I'm not sure when to interject and when to let them work it out, or whether they're even to young for that now. What I'm asking from you is advice on how to deal with personality differences between not just the children themselves, but with myself in the mix. I would also like any advice, or tips when it comes to validating both children and their individual personalities especially when it comes to dealing with conflict. Any perspective on older brother younger sister dynamics; dealing with a head strong personality, especially in girls; or anything you can offer from your own experience that left an impression on you regarding your sibling relationship and that with your parent. I so want to do the right thing for both of them."


"I'm a big sister to four younger siblings, two of them girls, and my only older sibling is very close to me in age, so I have the opposite natural bias. I think my older daughter and her friends have always been much more inclusive of my younger one than I and my friends ever were and I think that's great. But one thing I'm really, really clear on is that the big one gets to play with her friends without the little one for some of the time. So, when K. was your S.'s age and she had a friend over for a play date or sleep over, they played some of the time with Z. but they also had designated "big kid time" and I would play with Z. or watch a movie with her or something. And if she complained - which she sometimes did - I told her that that's the way it is:  big kids get time to do Big Kid Stuff together. I think kids get used to that if it's framed as a general rule (or perhaps Law of the Universe :-)) as opposed to specifically excluding her. I also often did play dates or sleepovers for both girls at the same time, or had both bring friends along to outings (zoo, theatre, etc).
By late single digit/early teen years they were completely comfortable with the idea that your siblings' friends spend some time with you and some time on their own with the friend. I think it's a good model for family life in general - if I have friends over, they pay attention to my kids but they don't spend the whole time playing with them, yk? And I expect the same from my older/grown kids and their friends - they'll interact with me over dinner, for example, but they're not there just to see me.
As to the leading/bossing in play - I think there's actually a lot that both big and little kid get out of that. Little one learns games and rhymes and jump rope techniques that her age peers don't know yet, and it makes the playing-with-the-little-sister more palatable to the older one. That said, it can get out of hand and you're right to watch for that. It's good for all kids, I think, to have a turn being the big one and a turn being the little one. If your nuclear family only provides one position, look for other ways to get the other ones - cousins, family friends, etc. Zara, for example, loves hanging out with my sister and her family, because they have an almost-five-year-old to whom she has the near-deity position of being Great Big Kid Who Can Do Almost Anything."


"I am in X's position as well and I feel like all I do anymore is set limits with the oldest for harrassing/bossing/manipulating her younger sister (who doesn't seem to mind the treatment nearly as much as I do!). So I am looking forward to hearing more solutions. Here are a few things that have helped us: My older kids are so close together (16mos) that I realized that I just lump them together as a kid unit and do activities that they both can do, which holds the oldest back from activities that she is ready for but her younger sister is not. Since this realization (and a lot of jealousy on the oldest child's part, and requests for more solo attention), I have decided to give the older one some big kid privileges, like staying up a bit later, and going to special shows or events (often with one of her big kid friends). I just explain that you have to be at least 5 to attend, which my younger daughter has accepted (we also try to do special activities with her alone as well). We also went on a special mommy-daughter weekend for her 5th bday (which all three of them will get upon turning 5). So instead of just extra responsibilities and less attention (the youngest is 21 mos and therefore sucks up a LOT of attention), my oldest is getting to experience extra privileges as well. I think the previous poster's idea of shared time with friends and solo time with friends is also good; that was the rule in our home growing up and it was usually successful. In the past, my husband has also taken them to work (one at a time) and they have really enjoyed that."


"I'm a big sister. My little sister is three and a half years younger, and I now have two daughters (ages 5.5 and 14 months). It's funny that you raise this issue because I'm realizing that I totally view my daughters' relationship through the big sister lens. When we were children, I hated it when my kid sister "tagged along" and resented the idea that, just because I was older, I was somehow responsible for providing free babysitting for her. I wanted to play alone with my friends or do my own thing and not be weighed down. (I'm sure this was all colored by the fact that my parents were divorced and often absent, and I definitely felt overburdened -- not to over-psychoanalyze myself, but to put it in some perspective).
Nowadays, I bend over backwards to respect my older daughter's space and keep the younger one out of her room and away from her toys or art supplies. I also never ask her to keep an eye on her little sister (she's still a little too young for that anyway, but I wouldn't be inclined to "burden" her with babysitting or substitute parenting). I hadn't really given much thought to my younger daughter's feelings of exclusion (or, potential feelings -- at 14 onths, I don't think she has much of an awareness of this yet), although I do step in to protect her if the older one is being bossy or overbearing."


"I agree that X has raised very interesting issues -- both the general point that we should try not to overreact to our kids' behavior based on our own issues, and the specific birth-order issue! I also agree with "both sides of the coin" which have been expressed by the first three posters here. On one hand, each kid has the right to some space, and the older kid should not always HAVE to hang out with the younger sister.  If she has some special time with her own friends, and is allowed to have some "big girl" privileges, she may not resent the younger one as much. On the other hand, you're right to discourage excessive bossiness, put-downs or meanness.
Oddly enough, I can't really speak specifically to the typical "older sibling"view, even though I'm 1 year older than my sister! She was always much more athletic/popular/gregarious than I was, with plenty of friends, so she did not need to glom onto my friendships. She basically had no interest in hanging out with me and my fellow oddball/intellectual/nerdy friends!
Just from viewing my own kids (twin boys), I can see that it's SO important to them to reach new milestones and skills. It's their major life-driving force and inspiration, to get OLDER and BETTER at everything. Frankly, they have very little interest in hanging out with little kids who haven't read some of the "big kid" the books they've read, who can't swim in the waves with them, who can't ride bikes with them, who speak slowly (relative to them and their same-age friends) and don't get their "big kid" jokes, etc. I know that sounds selfish and superior, but sometimes they're like wild horses who need to run, and can't stand being put back in the barn. (I don't know, maybe it's more common with boys? Or maybe my kids are just super-obnoxious that way??)  Hanging out with younger kids just doesn't provide the same excitement/challenge/fun as forging ahead to the next milestone for their age....
So what's my point? I guess that some older kids may feel genuine boredom with younger kids. Of course, they still have to learn to be civil and nice to younger kids, and there's no excuse for them to be mean! But it might help lessen tension if we acknowledge some older kids' desire not to feel constantly "stuck" playing at the younger kids' level. They may have some legitimate need to do their own thing at times, without the younger kid slowing them down."


"I think you've probably already heard this from the other big sisters chiming in, but as a big sister myself, as soon as I hit this line "My older daughter has been super great at allowing my younger daughter to join in her playdates..." my feathers ruffled a bit. If my memories of my childhood (my little sister is three years younger) are correct: I spent a LOT of time playing with and keeping an eye on my little sister around the house. But when my friends came over? I'm sorry, but that was MY time. It sounds harsh, but that was how I felt. And when asked to put myself back there just now, I felt that way again!
Negotiating sibling issues is actually one of the reasons I'm on the fence about having another child, so it's good to hear about the stuff that will come up."