Sibling Rivalry and Fighting…A Rite of Passage?

Posted March 10, 2010 by

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This may sound strange, but during a recent visit of about ten local kids to our house I was more than a little relieved to come around the corner and catch a big brother roughing up a little brother. Unaware that we were in the vicinity, the elder had just delivered an elbow thrust to the chestof the foot-shorter sibling and then followed up with a solid slam of his brother's torso into the wall for good measure. I thought to myself, "Whew! So it happens in other families, too."

And with confirmation that conscience does exist, big brother immediately turned red and gentled his hands when aught in the act. I could see the questions flitting behind his downcast eyes; should I dole out an apology or should I just stand silent and wait for the finger wag, or worse

Shaking off the physical insult, and holding back his tears as though to show he was worthy of defending, the littler of the two side-stepped nearer to my husbandand letthe embarrassing moment go with a shrug of his shoulders as he smoothed down his sweatshirt and promptly ran off to join the rest of the rowdiness — a generous face-saving move for brother and self.

Clearly big brother and little brother had danced this number before.

And I know for a fact that little brother has the ability to defend himself, and is willing to use tooth-and-nail and the fight-ending-groin-kick when needed.

Now I'm not applauding the Lord of the Flies mentality that seems to rear up when unsupervised rough-housing goes too far, but I am willing to admit that part of growing up is learning ther's boundaries and protection of one's own sandbox when push comes to shove. I just don't like it when these same lines are drawn in my rec room between my own children. Right and wrong is pretty clear, but dishing out the right at the wrong time — the choosing to walk away moment — builds character, gives self-esteem and helps avoid getting roughed up.

Some experts say it is best is to let ids work things out (with earplugs and blinders firmly in place) and ignore the bickering, but simplify the rules about solving disagreements physically.

We try this in our house:

  • Tolerance means each person has the right to their opinion and you don't have to determine who is "most right."
  • No touching when you are angry
  • If you can't work it out civilly, you both sit in a time out and hold hands until you both give up! ( I don't see this working beyond age 10…uh oh!)

My husband and I are grateful to be from big families who readily share stories just like the situation we walked in on. As the youngest in a family of several brothers, my husband frequently recounts repeated head-tucks and "crying uncle" during wrestling matches conducted in living rooms, and settling disputes with competitive, pain-inducing arm twists and shoulder punches. Now that he and his siblings are adults, all appears to have been forgiven and forgotten, and the stories are retold only to defend exactly the same actions now being repeated by brothers in the next generation of boys. I can only imagine there must be some brotherly code of conduct that gives value to the act of the weaker submitting. Unless the walking-away choice is supported by someone in authority, such as when the big brother is caught using his flattening "skills," I wonder at what point will children decide it is okay to bestow mercy on the weaker party It appears that learning when to walk away sometimes happens only after the weaker one learns they can never win or when they decide their person, possessions, even their opinions, are no longer worth fighting for. Isn't allowing kids to navigate these physical negotiation methods on their own called 'natural consequences' It doesn't feel natural to me. And what if the authority figure, or the audience of brothers or onlookers, is unwilling to stop the aggressor: How likely are siblings to attempt to settle their disagreements with physical tests rather than with words I want mine to know that right now they might think of each other as annoying, but I trust that when they are grown, they will understand that the time of submission to the latest choke-hold is over. Will mine learn to replace rough-housing with respectful communication and cooperative dialogue Will talking really even the playing field between the strong and the weak. It seems a little flexing of the muscles seems to be a necessary part of both sibling survival and self-respect. Or is it


Annita Wozniak grew up in a large, imperfect family in the Midwest. "As adults we have the power to build children up or tear them down," she says about the challenges of being a responsible parent, "and we never know when what we say is going to be a defining moment in a child's life." Woz is a writer and child-grower living in the Midwest with her husband and their three inspirational children. She is always learning. You can visit her website at

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