Sibling Rivalry: Treating Kids Fairly Versus Equally

We’ve all been there. A couple of screaming kids (usually siblings) race to your feet and you find yourself playing referee to the latest argument. What is your typical reaction? You may have never considered how your response in these moments will impact the kids, but there are actually varying viewpoints on the best way to handle sibling rivalry.

Before sharing these viewpoints, I will tell you that my approach to this is the same way I approach techniques in counseling, parenting, and life in general. I take the information available and apply what works with my own experiences and circumstances. It’s all about balance and personal judgment for me.

Treating Kids Equally Versus Fairly

I enjoyed this post by Positive Discipline titled “Put Kids in the Same Boat.” The main idea is that you should not take sides when kids fight because you probably do not know all the details of what happened. The author warns against creating a bully and victim mentality in the children.

Right is always a matter of opinion. What seems right to you will surely seem unfair from at least one child’s point of view. If you feel you must get involved to stop fights, don’t become judge, jury, and executioner. Instead, put them in the same boat and treat them the same. Instead of focusing on one child as the instigator, say something like, “Kids, which one of you would like to put this problem on the agenda,” or, “Kids, do you need to go to yourf eel good places for a while, or can you find a solution now?” or, “Kids, do you want to go to separate rooms until you can find a solution, or to the same room.”

The point is not who did what. The point is that you treat both children the same so one doesn’t learn victim mentality and the other doesn’t learn bully mentality. Surely, the baby won’t be traumatized by being put into her crib for few seconds. Another way to put children in the same boat is to give them both the same choice. “Would you both like to sit on my lap until you are ready to stop fighting?” Do or say whatever is comfortable for you—so long as they are treated the same.

An article on the MainStreetMom website titled Don’t Treat Your Children Equally! Treat Them Fairly by Ron Huxley, LMFT, takes the position that treating kids equally is impossible and can even be harmful.

Sibling rivalry often occurs because parents mistakenly believe that everyone must be treated equally. The reality is that parents cannot treat everyone equally. But they can treat everyone fairly. Fairness implies giving favors in an impartial and consistent manner.  Equality, on the other hand, implies giving favors in an exact or identical manner. Very rarely can a parent give all of their children love or attention in an equal manner.

A fair family treats every one according to their individual needs and considers everyone as worthy of love and respect. Attempting to treat everyone the same actually back fires on parents, as children are not the same in body or spirit.  Ironically, treating them the same would be treating them unequally! Treat your child according to their age, maturity, temperament, and the situation you find yourself in. Be fair to yourself and your child by attempting the only realistic solution: fairness.

Allowing the Children to Solve Their Own Disagreement

I also want to bring up another significant approach to sibling rivalry, which is to allow the children an opportunity to work out their differences and disagreements. Hands down, this will always be my first approach. If I knew what parenting philosopher first recorded this technique, I would credit them here. Encouraging the kids to try to work things out on their own teaches them problem solving and social skills, as well as builds confidence. Be sure to use your judgment on the type of problem they are having, the age and developmental levels of the kids, and whether consequences should be dealt. You may determine that discipline for one or both children is appropriate, or that treating them equally is the best approach.

A recent post by Teacher Tom titled “You Both Want This Toy” is a great illustration of how this theory works in real life. He describes how his toddlers wanted the same toy and he used the moment, even with children so young, to give them an opportunity to develop some valuable social and problem solving skills. Great read!

If this post does anything, I hope it brings awareness about the various ways you can decide to address sibling rivlary, or rivalry between friends, cousins… you’ve got the idea. You don’t have to always punish or always solve the problem. However, keep in mind that how you choose to respond will send a message and create a learning opportunity for those kids.

If you have another approach or resource on this topic, please pass it along. With a second baby on the way, I am getting ready for a short life time of sibling rivalry! Just being a therapist does not mean I can’t learn from all you other moms and dads out there!

Author: Kim Peterson, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

7 thoughts on “Sibling Rivalry: Treating Kids Fairly Versus Equally”

  1. I only have one kid but I never liked being treated equally. For instance, my eldest sister (kind of like a second mom) actually didn’t think it was fair that I get to drive a car at a certain age because another sister of mine older by 2 years didn’t get to drive until much later. Funny though that we use the word fair but really she was trying to treat us equally, as in you got to drive at x age and so will your sister, no matter what. Never mind that circumstances were completely different by the time I was able to drive (an available car, more money in the family, etc.).

  2. Hi Kim, I couldn’t agree with you more that we, as parents, teachers, just the adult on the scene, should not put ourselves in the position of judge with 2 kids in a disagreement! Just keep them from hurting each other, I say!
    I also liked your idea of giving them the opportunity to work it out with each other and maybe facilitating that a little—that was new to me and an excellent idea—an E. I. learning opportunity.

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