Dear Dr. Dobson: I've been careful to be fair with my children and give them no reason to resent one another. Nevertheless, they continue to fight. What can I do?
Dear Reader: The problem may rest in your lack of disciplinary control at home. Sibling rivalry is at its worst when there is an inadequate system of justice among children -- where the "lawbreakers" do not get caught, or if apprehended are set free without standing trial. It is important to understand that laws in a society are established and enforced for the purpose of protecting people from each other. Likewise, a family is a mini-society with the same requirement for protection of human rights.
For purposes of illustration, suppose that I live in a frontier community where there is no established law. Policemen do not exist and there are no courts to whom disagreements can be appealed. Under those circumstances, my neighbor and I can abuse each other with impunity. He can steal my horses and throw rocks through my windows while I raid the apples from his favorite tree and take his plow late at night. This kind of mutual antagonism has a way of escalating day by day, becoming ever more violent with the passage of time.
As indicated, individual families are similar to societies in their need for law and order. In the absence of justice, "neighboring" siblings begin to assault one another. The older child is bigger and tougher, which allows him to oppress his younger brothers and sisters. But the junior member of the family is not without weapons of his own. He strikes back by breaking the toys and prized possessions of the older sibling and interferes when friends are visiting.
In many homes, the parents do not have sufficient disciplinary control to enforce their judgments. In others, they are so exasperated with constant bickering among siblings that they refuse to get involved. In still others, parents require an older child to live with an admitted injustice "because your brother is smaller than you." Even more commonly today, mothers and fathers are both working while their children are home busily disassembling each other.
I will say it again to parents: One of your most important responsibilities is to establish an equitable system of justice and a balance of power at home. There should be reasonable "laws" which are enforced fairly for each member of the family. For purposes of illustration, let me list the boundaries and rules which evolved through the years in my own home.
* Neither child was ever allowed to make fun of the other in a destructive way. Period! This was an inflexible rule with no exceptions.
* Each child's room was his or her private territory. There were locks on both doors, and permission to enter was a revocable privilege. (Families with more than one child in each bedroom can allocate available living space for each youngster.)
* The older child was not permitted to tease the younger child.
* The younger child was forbidden to harass the older child.
* The children were not required to play with each other when they preferred to be alone or with other friends.
* We mediated any genuine conflict as quickly as possible, being careful to show impartiality and extreme fairness.
As with any plan of justice, this plan requires the children's respect for leadership of the parent, a willingness by the parent to mediate and occasional enforcement of punishment. When this approach is accomplished with love, the emotional tone of the home can be changed from one of hatred to (at least) tolerance.
Send your questions to Dr. James Dobson, c/o Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903. Dobson is the chairman of the board for Focus on the Family.