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The Boundaries Between

Part 3 of Navigating Sibling Rivalry

Spoiler alert! This is where "socialization" happens.

We began this series on navigating sibling rivalry by taking a closer look at the types of property within our homes. While that may seem like a legal mindset, it is nothing more than labeling materials and spaces according to their use.

Think of it this way: If you want to make a cake, you need to be able to identify milk, eggs, sugar, and flour. Right? If you want to combine your family's interpersonal behaviors into a peaceful home, you need to be able to identify the ingredients.

So what are the ingredients for peaceful family pie?

  • individual property- and the behavioral playbook for navigating individual property

  • communal property- and the behavioral playbook for navigating communal property

  • the boundary between individual and communal property- and the boundary's behavioral playbook

If you missed our focus on the first two forms of property, feel free to jump over to part 1 of the series!

Identifying the Boundary Between

It is very easy to identify those things in our home which are individual and community properties. It is a bit trickier to identify the boundary between. Unfortunately, this boundary is the BIG sticky spot.

Children from birth to age four struggle with following social norms for individual and community property. Young children do not yet have the basic behavioral playbook absorbed, or the frontal lobe connections required for emotional control. These "young" issues are easy to resolve in the sense that Mom and Dad know what their convictions are regarding the materials. We all know that taking is wrong.

Why is this information important?

One of the best indicators that you are dealing with a "boundary between" issue is your own sense of frustration in attempting to resolve the matter. These are the issues that cause the big kids to fight. These are the issues that have no obvious resolution. And why not? These are the issues that are hidden beneath the surface. They are dependent on the situation, and the needs and maturity of the people involved. These are the issues which must be communicated before they can be resolved.

There are three factors which cause boundary conflict!!

Physical Space - Individual Needs - Maturity Differences

Physical Space Boundaries

The most obvious one.

How many times have you sat on an airplane next to another adult who didn't seem to realize he was taking up space? How many times do you hear, "Mom, her elbow is touching my chair!!" screamed from the backseat of the car? Same. It's the same.

There is no easy answer here primarily because there is no visible line denoting where one person's space ends and another's begins. We do not walk around with visible bubbles! If we did, it would be massively entertaining to observe the differences between our loved ones so clearly. Some of us have bubbles so large they hardly allow anyone else in the room!

What is needed to resolve these issues is kind communication, and mutual respect.

The solution? Model, Model Model!! And teach with kind clarity.

How many times a day are you trying to cook, or clean, or EXIST, and the children feel the need to stand, jump, wrestle, whine, climb... in your zone and generally get in the way? WHAT A BLESSING!! These are the best times for teaching physical space curtesy. They are also the best times for teaching coping strategies for when the other person just isn't getting it!!

How you respond when you are frustrated by your children's apparent lack of awareness or personal space violations teaches them both how to recognize the boundary and how to respond to it.

I don't know if it is a gift from God, or just a lovely coincidence, but our children provide PLENTY of opportunities for learning about physical space boundaries just by their very nature. (aka Kids can be annoying in the most wonderfully persistent way.) Be the example you hope to see.

It is important to note here that clarity is kindness. If you wish for your children to become aware of "that thing they do that drives friends nuts", it does not help to stay silent. Consider it the behavioral equivalent of telling a friend they have toilet paper attached to their shoes, or food in their teeth. When you tell you children the truth, kindly, they learn how to tell the truth kindly. This pays off in dividends when they get older and have working models for how to express displeasure with a sibling, coworker, friend, boss, stranger, neighbor, or spouse.

This practice of openness also helps children become people that other people want to be around. It is hard to make friends, or get a job, or find a study partner, or be a good life partner without this skill. It may not be a very popular opinion but one of your jobs as a parent is to kindly help your children become pleasant company.

If you find your children arguing over physical space boundaries, allow both parties to speak. Then, walk them through the conversations they would be having if they were two adults on a plane.

Okay. That's enough rambling... Let's move on.

Individual Needs: Boundary Events

My husband is the only one who leaves the house in the morning. As we are bustling about, sharing kitchens, bathrooms, and sinks, he gets priority. He is in a time crunch. We have many coffee cups, and I could take the one with the lid if I wanted. I could declare this community item temporarily mine, but that wouldn't be thoughtful. I would be acting without awareness of his need for a coffee to go.

Just a coffee cup. It is such a small detail! This is one of the trickiest things about individual needs!!

Boundary issues that stem from individual needs can not be repaired unless both parties are aware of the need, and all the little things that need effects.

When your children are struggling with these problems, it is good to "lay it all out on the line". Discuss the need together, and the little things that effect the scenario.

Individual need boundaries pop up when our toddlers take a nap. The big kid's room may be their individual property, but if it is right next door, there will be a few hours each day when they need to play elsewhere.

Individual need boundaries pop up when schoolwork time demands Mom's attention, the dining room table, and relative quiet. Little sis will need to find a play activity that respects these needs.

Or perhaps little sis has a dance recital on Friday night that requires the usual Friday night movie be moved to Saturday morning.

Anytime your personal space and time NEED to be given to another family member, there is a boundary that can cause potential disruption. The perfect adult example is your driveway. Sometimes a neighbor needs to back up a trailer, and the only way to do it is to borrow your driveway for a bit. Or maybe they throw a party and everyone needs to park around your house. There are social expectations involved here that can even be tricky for adults to navigate. Surely we can give a little grace to our children!

Remember, "thank you" is a magic word. Having a legitimate need does not negate the fact that family members are constantly sacrificing for each other. Be sure to cultivate an environment of gratitude for all the little ways we help make each other's life better.

Maturity Differences

Oof. This one is very hard.

The boundary issues that arise as a result of age gaps are tricky because the older sibling never stops being older. This can create a serious case of resentment on behalf of one party or the other.

Parents can fall into the trap of always protecting the younger sibling. Worried that the older child is taking advantage of their size, wits or experience, there is a strong pull to protect the baby. But the baby never stops being the baby. What is appropriate intervention at 4 and 2 becomes interfering by 5 and 3, and serious resentment on the part of the older sibling by 15 and 13.

Be very, very careful about giving the impression that the older child is "bad". They are also learning.

The opposite problem shows up less frequently, but it is not unknown; parents who were very comfortable letting their first born climb the kitchen chair to chop dinner veggies at 2 shoo their 4 year old baby out of the way because they aren't big enough for a knife. Sometimes the baby gets stuck being the baby. Children in these shoes become resentful of their big siblings because they constantly feel denied the opportunity for self realization.

Luckily, there is a solution to disagreements rooted in maturity differences that most parents will find easily accessible. Try this approach:

  1. Develop a culture of life long learning within the home.

  2. For every request you make of the older sibling, provide an equivalent "big kid freedom".

  3. For every "not yet" request you make of your younger siblings, provide an equivalent joyful connection.

  4. Teach "stages of life" to everyone in the home.

  5. Request input from both parties.

An Example:

Imagine you are a three year old who is finally getting the hang of building massive magnet towers. Left to your own you would spend hours a day joyfully engaged. Your little brother is an 13 month old who can walk, run, climb, open doors and knock over towers. What the 13 month old can not do is understand that the three year old is working and his work must be respected. Whatever you build WILL be destroyed AND if you try to stop it or stand up for yourself, Mom will get mad. What is your emotional state going to be for the next six months while little brother matures?

It is tempting to tell the three year old, "You have to share with your brother." Not only is this a violation of our community property rule book, but little brother is not even capable of sharing right now! He will only destroy big brother's hard work and a fight will ensue. If big brother is like many three year old's, there will be a physical altercation and the big brother will be labeled "bad" while little brother is labeled "baby".

Twenty minutes later, when dinner is served and little brother is accidentally given the blue cup that "belongs" to big brother, there will be a massive tantrum. The big brother will be labeled "bad" and the little brother will be labeled "baby".

At bed time, you may read little brother's book first. Cue another tantrum. Cue the "bad" and "baby" labels. You may find yourself thinking, "Three year olds are so difficult!! It isn't that big of a deal!"

And it isn't. Or at least, it wouldn't be. But how many times would YOU allow someone to steal from you before you throw a tantrum of your own? By the time the last straw drops, that straw is seldom something worth crying over if the incident had happened in isolation. From big sibling's perspective, little brother has been stealing his thunder all day. All things are allowed for the "baby" and doing anything to protect his work or wishes makes big brother "bad".

Let's try a few things. First, let's create a culture of life long learning within the home that labels stages of life so that every family member may appreciate every other family member's level of growth.

Let's empathize with big brother!

"Yikes! It is really frustrating to not have a way to work without having your work destroyed. Little brother is in his toddler years. His brain doesn't understand that your brain needs to build towers right now. That is so frustrating for you!! Can you help me come up with an idea? How can we build towers that little brother can't knock over? Should we try building on the big table? Should we try in your room? Maybe you can take them to the playhouse? What do you think?"

(Receive his input as if he has something important to say that you haven't already thought of, because he might. And because he is a human worth valuing.)

"Those are good ideas. Which one would you like to try first? You are an amazing big brother for supporting your little brother's growth right now. He doesn't want to be naughty, he just doesn't understand what your towers mean to you right now. I do, though! We are going to make this work!! We are a good team."

If big brother truly is BIG, then let him play outside (in the backyard) alone for a bit. Maybe he can take out his snack with him while he works, since he is so BIG and HELPFUL. By doing this, you are resolving the issue by giving big brother some additional big kid freedoms! This will solve the issue without adding sibling resentfulness.

While big brother is outside, little brother is free to get one on one attention from Mom. Bonus!! Anytime the younger sibling is denied a big kid freedom, provide them a special moment of connection.

Teach your kiddos the stages of development, and then request their help in honoring each other's stages. In this way you will build love, self esteem and a supportive environment. (Instead of resentment.)

Final Words

The boundaries between personal property and shared property are difficult to navigate because they are the grey area that exists in interpersonal skills. In this grey area we don't know who exactly is in the right. In this grey area we must learn to speak up for what we need, and what we see. Equally difficult- we must learn to humbly listen to those we love with an open heart.

This grey area is where real socialization occurs! This is where we learn to cohabitate with love.

As this series continues we will take a closer look at the boundaries that present themselves during active play. (Our bodies are a form of individual property too! Attempting to rough and tumble without consent from both parties is just a fight.)

For now we will leave the topic here with a few questions 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? Also, what are a few boundary issues that come to mind when you think of personal space, individual needs, and maturity differences?

I hope our journey inspires your own,

Buckets & Berries


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