Sister Wars

Shortly after my second daughter, Claudia, was born, I whispered into her tiny ear:

“You will love the color blue!”

This was critical because her older sister, Fern, had succumbed to toddler peer pressure and become a pink addict. I don’t object to the color, although I find the pink explosion of Target’s “girl” aisle pretty ridiculous.

No, mostly I loathe conflict, and when children’s toys, paints or cutlery come in multicolor sets, there’s always only one pink.

I had witnessed daily battles erupt at Fern’s preschool over the one unshareable pink shovel or plate. So when Claudia came along, I persuaded her to prefer blue, then pretended that it was her own choice. (One of parenting’s great joys is lying to your children.)

“Oh, lucky you!” I would tell baby Claudia when she was too young to care. “You get the blue cup! It’s your favorite.

I figured that with one pink kid and one blue kid, there would be no fights. Everyone gets her favorite color and peace will reign!

Inevitably, I was wrong.

Being a parent means discovering daily what a billion people already know. Leak-proof diapers are a myth, toddlers eat rocks and, now, this: Siblings always fight.

Sure, there are exceptions. Siblings far apart in age or raised on different continents probably keep the peace. But otherwise, if Fern and Claudia are any example, even gentle children are capable of epic sibling battles.

Now aged 7 and 10, my daughters’ conflicts cover every topic except favorite color: “You’re on my side!” and “That’s mine!” and “Get your elbow off my butt!”

Obviously, they are vying for my attention, so I try to ignore them. The “let them work it out” approach can succeed. At a friend’s house last month, I witnessed a confrontation between their two kids. The boy walked in, turned to his sister and shouted, unprovoked, “You don’t know anything!”

His sister responded, “No, you don’t know anything!”

Their mom silently followed that ancient rule of peacemaking: Don’t get in the middle. And the conflict simply ended: brother left the room and sister placidly returned to her book.

But that’s not our family’s pattern; when I overlook my girls’ disputes, they turn physical. Eventually, I become so frustrated that I fall back on the simplest (and worst) method of all: I shout, send them to different corners of the house and exact an arbitrary punishment.

If I don’t react to the fight, am I condoning bad behavior? Does not intervening teach them that the loudest (or “punchiest”) gets her way in the end?

The problem is that I myself am terrible at conflict management. My personal strategy could be summed up as “doormat”: I avoid disagreements and hope they’ll go away.

That doesn’t work; bad feelings fester. I’ve lost friends and jobs by not speaking up in the face of problems. When my kids are mad, they shout it out – sometimes, they wrestle it out– but they could never be accused of not expressing themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with letting my kids argue, as long as I intervene when one throws a punch or abducts the other’s favorite stuffed horse. Maybe what’s called for is a blend: a benign but mindful neglect.

Instead of ignoring their fights or separating them, I can actively nudge them toward solutions. I’d rather play the role of mediator than punisher-in-chief. That approach gives the girls the attention they were seeking in the first place but rewards them for resolving their problems.

And since they seem to enjoy it so much, I can still allow them an occasional private spat. With kids, it’s good to be generous.

Graham Charles blogs at

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