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Navigating Sibling Rivalry

Part 1: Understanding Property

Each person takes up space; physical space, emotional space, resources, time, and energy. Preventing sibling rivalry begins with recognizing where the boundaries and needs between people begin and end.

Living in a peaceful society demands that my neighbor's fence means something to me, and my fence means something to him. It insists I am not allowed to harm his body and he is not allowed to harm mine. There are many hidden rules right under the surface of cooperative community.

In stable cultures, what I can expect from others and what they can expect from me are universally known, but children are not born privy to this information.

We must explicitly TEACH the guiding principles supporting the boundaries, responsibilities and freedoms people inherently maintain before children can become successful at interpersonal relationships.

First we must define what these principles for peaceful cohabitation are, and second we must coach the child in effective means of communication in order to maintain the system.

Guiding Principles for Interpersonal Relationships

Can your neighbor take your lawnmower without asking? No.

Individual property belongs to the owner.

Can your neighbor drive on the street between your houses without asking? Yes.

Community property can not be claimed as individual property.

Can your neighbor back up into your driveway in order to turn around? Yes. If he is careful.

The boundary between individual property and community property remains peaceful through open dialogue, mutual respect, and curtesy.

These are the three different types of property. Each type comes with its own rules of engagement:

  • Individual Property

  • Community Property

  • The Boundary Between

In your own home you must be very clear that these three types of property exist. You also must be very clear which items (and which locations) in the home fall into which category before behaviors can be successfully addressed.

Individual Property

My computer is very special to me. No one is allowed to touch it without my permission, and I almost never give permission. Would you think me selfish for not "taking turns" with the toddlers in my home? No!

Yet we do this to children. We tell children they MUST share.

Spoiler alert: It isn't sharing if it's coerced.

The real kicker here is establishing which things belong 100% to individual children in your home. To the young child, everything they currently desire is their property. (Cue all the toddlers shouting "MINE!") Defining which things are actually theirs and which are community is the first step in helping them navigate the social waters.

Once you know what these things are, then you can work on explicitly teaching siblings the phrases necessary to maintain the peace.

Here are the scenarios that tend to arise...

  • a sibling wishes to play with another's toy that he is not currently using

  • a sibling wishes to play with another's toy that he is currently using

  • the sibling is not using the borrowed toy correctly... either the toy or the child will be injured if such behavior continues.

If your children are not clear about whether this toy is a belonging toy (In our home, a toy that belongs to one child in particular is referred to as a belonging toy.) there WILL BE friction in the relationship in regards to this toy.

Once the toy is a belonging toy all rules of ownership apply. If you would like to use a belonging toy, you must first ask for permission to use it. Then you must treat it respectfully. Lastly, you are responsible for cleaning up the item when you finish.

Remember, we must EXPLICITLY teach this skill. Arm your child with a handful of initiating phrases that they are allowed to use. Children may not scream at another. That isn't how our family operates. We respect each other's space and belongings, and we speak kindly to each other.

Buckets and Berries info graph with phrases to help children learn to play together. These initiating phrases are "May I play with you? May I play with this? How do I use this? May I have a turn next?" and "Would you like to switch?" These are phrases to teach children to help them learn how to borrow from another child.

If you stumble upon a scene full of tears and screams, and you find that one child has taken an item that belongs to another, try following this script.

  • "What happened?" (Hear each side out without judgement.)

  • Did you want to play with this?

  • This belongs to brother. Did you ask first? Try saying, "May I play with this?"

  • (Have the child ask "May I play with this?" to big brother.)

  • Allow big brother to respond however he wishes. "No." is a complete sentence.

  • When little sis is sad, let her be sad. The reality is that you can't steal another person's things just because you want them. Hug her through it and stick to your convictions.

It will take hundreds of repetitions on your part, but if you faithfully walk your children through the request and response phrases as one child tries to initiate play, and the other tries to protect their personal boundaries, you will find they begin (around the age of 4) to independently navigate the interpersonal scene.

What are response phrases?

This is a buckets and berries info graphic explicitly guiding children on phrases they may use to respond to a child's bid for play. These phrases are "Yes. No. Not right now. You can have it next. Please use it like this. I am afraid this will happen. You can use it until..."

Response phrases are the ways in which we can say "No." kindly. It is perfectly acceptable to say, "No. I don't want you to use my tablet." What you may not do is yell, "You always try to steal my stuff!"

Response phrases are also the ways in which we can say "Yes." while maintaining our personal boundaries.

It is incredibly important for young children to learn how to stand up for themselves politely. We must allow small children the ability to tell big brother, "You can use it as long as you don't leave it outside." the same way we allow ourselves to tell the neighbor, "Please do not back up into my driveway so quickly. Children play here." Let your children build their backbone within the loving environment of your home.

As this series continues we will take a closer look at communal space, the boundary between communal and individual property, and play. (Our bodies are a form of individual property too! Attempting rough and tumble play without consent from both parties is just a fight.)

For now we will leave the topic here with a question to all the parents in the room. Do you know which items in your home are community property and which are individual property? Do your children? Does it change anything?

I hope our journey inspires your own,

Buckets & Berries


Amber Duffney
Amber Duffney
Mar 19, 2022

I love this! I can't wait to read the rest of the series. I didn't grow up with siblings so I feel like I don't have a good understanding of what it's like to be a part of sibling rivalry. I just feel like I have to be a referee sometimes and I am hoping that using your tips will give me a better way to handle the disagreements between my kiddos! Thank you!

May 22, 2022
Replying to

I'm so glad you enjoyed it! The third part of the series was finally posted yesterday. Sorry it took so long! I couldn't figure out how to get my thoughts into words!!

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