A parent of siblings may ask, Shouldn’t I get something for our oldest since everyone’s bringing birthday gifts for our youngest? Giving a gift to one child can almost seem like taking something away from the others. Should a parent give smaller, token gifts to the other siblings on a birthday or other special occasion like the birth of a younger sibling? What about when siblings compare gifts they get during the holidays?

Parents may feel the need to calm sibling jealousy. For the birthday girl, however, such efforts may seem to take away from the special status she expects from her celebration. Our guidance:

  1. Plan in advance for such feelings, and prepare your response.
  2. For a younger child (up to age 3 or 4), consider a small gift that can help keep him from interfering with a sibling’s celebration. Maybe the birthday girl could participate in picking out the gift for her brother. “She knew it would be such a great day for her that she wanted to share it with you. She got you this gift.”
  3. When children are older, though, be aware that such occasions are important times for them to learn to step aside and leave the spotlight to the sibling. It’s also a chance for them to learn to handle their jealousy as they watch a sibling open all the presents and they are empty-handed.

A New Baby

One 4-year-old whose mother was about to give birth to a new baby boy watched the preparations for his arrival intently. When friends sent a package for the baby containing a white teddy bear bigger than the baby would be, the 4-year-old grabbed it and announced that it was hers. She named it White Cloud.

Her parents, already feeling guilty about abandoning her for the new baby, couldn’t bear to set her straight. She’d never wanted a teddy bear before, but she took this one to bed and held it tight every night until she left home for college.

Fortunately, her brother gave her many other chances to learn to share and to sacrifice over the years. Her parents always wondered whether on the day White Cloud arrived, they should have helped her learn that she couldn’t always have everything she wanted. I would have advised them that this was not a time to face that challenge. The birth of a baby is one special occasion when an older sibling needs support rather than pushing when she falls back on younger ways.

The Holidays

At holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah, all the children receive gifts, compare their loot, and either gloat or feel slighted. These feelings can’t be avoided entirely, nor need they be, as children must learn to handle them. But they can interfere with the importance of these holidays as times for the family to enjoy being together. Despite parents’ efforts, rivalry and jealousy will peak on these occasions.

Help children prepare for these overwhelming feelings and discuss them in advance. “Everyone looks forward to Christmas for so long that they can feel disappointed when it finally comes. Sometimes you get exactly what you want, and sometimes you don’t. Worst of all, sometimes it seems like everyone else got all the good stuff, and you didn’t get what you wanted. It feels so bad it could wreck the whole holiday. But that wouldn’t be worth it, would it?”

Watching siblings receive gifts that are “theirs” and accepting that these are “not theirs” is a necessary part of learning how to share and value others. The goal, after all, is for the child to discover the satisfaction of giving.

(This article is adapted from Mastering Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way, by Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow [Da Capo 2005]).

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