I need a strategy for curbing sibling rivalry. How can I keep the school-age boy from playing too rough with his baby/toddler brother? The refrain of "Stop X. Don’t Y. Keep your hands to yourself, etc." doesn’t work and makes the older sibling feel like he’s always scolded while the baby "never gets in trouble."

How old should the little one be before I can let them duke it out themselves without my intervening so much?


Parents can’t quell sibling rivalry, but they can avoid making it worse. The firstborn child has parents to himself until the second comes along. Then he must give you up every time his sibling needs you. He must look on as you admire his baby brother, and he wonders when it will ever be his turn again or if you still admire him at all. As soon as the younger brother is old enough to scoot and crawl, the older one will have to fend him off when he comes to snatch one of his toys or knock down the block tower he has worked hard to balance. Moreover, the older one must please you when you beseech him to be a "good big brother," which often means giving up his special place in the family as firstborn.

From birth, the second child has never known another position. He is grateful for whatever parental attention he gets, and as the baby of the family, he’ll get plenty. But soon he starts wishing he could do all the things his brother can. He falls apart whenever he fails to imitate him. Parents rush to scoop him up and coddle him – to his older brother’s disgust. Over time, if parents stay out of their struggles, the older child will learn to take pleasure in the younger one’s admiration, and enjoy his role in helping him learn.

To avoid reinforcing sibling rivalry, the first step is to accept that it is not a parent’s job to keep siblings from fighting. If you try, you’re likely to intensify the conflict by putting yourself in mid-battle. Every time you tell the older one, "No," "Don’t," "Stop," he is likely to feel even more resentful of his younger brother. He knows you are mad at him. It’s easy to see how in his mind your temporary loss of affection for him is the little one’s fault – all the more reason to torture him again.

An infant must not be left with an older sibling unsupervised. But I’ve never seen one sibling seriously injure another when parents leave it to the children to sort out their differences on their own. When the youngest can fend for himself, make it clear you expect them both to straighten things out themselves.

Don’t bother trying to figure out "who started it." Most of the time, you’ll never know, and engaging in this inquiry just heightens their competition to be your favorite. Instead, let them know that you don’t care who’s to blame. Tell them that you hold them both responsible for stopping their squabbling. And if you can manage it, give each of them regular separate times just to play with you.

(For more information: "Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way," by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D. Da Capo Press.)

Post Questions