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Sibling Rivalry: Can’t Kill ’em so Try to Love ’em

I have three siblings: an older sister, and two younger brothers. Our relationships with each other have, like the sides of an accordion, sometimes drawn closer and sometimes moved farther apart. At times distance (east-west coast, California-Israel) has made my heart grow fonder; occasionally the distance provides an easy excuse to ignore them. While we may argue over who is our parents’ favorite (“my son, the rabbi”…, kind of hard to beat that), we so often turn to each other when the going gets really tough.

A seven-year-old girl, discussing her younger sister and herself, once said: “I think that God is having one big experiment. God put two people who are very different in one house to live and wants to see what happens.” Truth be told: my brothers and I had some knock-down, drag-outs in our day, and we all did a lot of kvetching – complaining – about each other too. But in various ways, my siblings are the people who consume much of the space in my heart. Our relationships are intense, complex and deeply cherished.

Torah Truth 1: Sibling Relationships are Challenging
In truth, many sibling relationships are challenging, for the children and for the parents too. These problems reach as far back as our Biblical past. Torah, in its brutally honest way, bares the truth about siblings for all to see. Rather than whitewashing our founding families, Genesis details the fratricide of Cain and Abel, the supplanting of Ishmael by Isaac, the outright disdain and deceit between Jacob and Esau, jealousies between Leah and Rachel, and the parental favoritism, egotism (and attempted fratricide) between Joseph and his brothers.

No doubt Biblical parents helped fuel these sibling rivalries: Abraham’s willingness to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, Laban’s deceiving of Jacob with Leah, and Jacob’s fawning over Joseph. How much do our actions (or inactions) as parents influence the relationships our children develop?

Torah Truth 2: Not All Sibling Relationships are Toxic

While the fratricidal Cain and Abel are perhaps the Torah’s best-known brothers, there is also the example of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, who learn to live in harmony to benefit the Jewish people and have become models to emulate through the generations. In fact, each Friday evening, Jewish parents worldwide bless their sons, “May you be like Ephraim and Menasha.” These two young men have become a model for boys on how they should get on with each other.

By the end of the Torah, we see a very different picture of sibling relationships. Sandy Littman, of the London School of Jewish Studies, argues that “you have situations where each sibling’s role is complementary and their characters mesh with each other to function in a harmonious way. The Torah gives us the negative picture first.” Jacob and Esau, for example, could have had a partnership. Two brothers who were so different had something to make the world complete, bring some good to the world. But instead of forming a partnership, they went off in different ways.

Yet brothers Moses and Aaron combine their talents to free the Israelites. Aaron, the high priest, and Moses, the leader, complement each other’s talents. They completed each other. One wonders, suggest scholar Littman, whether Aaron and Moses worked so well together “because they had a big sister to look after them.”

Tips for Family Flow Rather than Friction

  • Encourage your kids to work as a team. Suggest they make pizza together every Sunday night, or put them in charge of recycling bottles and deciding how the return money is spent.
  • Step back and allow your children to create their own relationships apart from you. Catch yourself if you tend to micromanage their interaction.
  • Come to the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting’s presentation by Bette Alkazian (Thursday, February 5, 7:00-8:30 pm) on Brothers And Sisters: The Joys And Challenges Of Sibling Relationships. More information here.
  • When kids begin to squabble, don’t become the referee. Come up with ways they can work out their own spats. One mother does more than just send fighting kids to their rooms. She asks them to stand in their bedroom doorways and talk out the problem. They aren’t to return downstairs until they have worked it out. Standing in the doorway staring at each other leads to lots of interesting solutions — all without parental input.
  • Disagreements and irritation are part of any relationship. Accept that negative feelings will surface and try to develop a built-in structure for dealing with them.
  • Don’t expect automatic “brotherly love.” It lessens the guilt associated with “Well, he’s your brother: You should love him.”
  • Spend one-on-one time with each child. This communicates, “Yes, we are a team, but you are special!” We all want to be loved for our unique selves.
  • Take the time to truly observe each of your children to discover their temperament and approach to the world. What makes their spirit sing?
  • Strive to meet a child’s individual need when it arises. When one child is sick, he may need chicken soup and a back massage. That doesn’t mean it’s unfair that his brother doesn’t get the special treatment. His turn will come.
  • It’s our job to care for our children, not an older sister’s or brother’s. (Cain resented having to be his brother’s keeper, and we know how that turned out.)

Remember that no family is perfect. Even the Bible illustrates some pretty messy family dramas! (Adapted from Beliefnet)

Talkback


Are you (or did you) struggle to stimulate healthy relationships amongst your children or grandchildren? Become part of our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting exploration of these central relationships.

Attend Lecture: Come to the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting’s presentation by Bette Alkazian (Thursday, February 5, 7:00-8:30 pm) on Brothers And Sisters: The Joys And Challenges Of Sibling Relationships. More information here. Please RSVP to Kathy Haggerty.

Share Your Parenting Tips: Let us know what has worked for you to mellow the monsters (er, to stimulate healthy relationships). Share your answers on the blog. Click below (remember to type your name at the bottom of your comment and then change the “Comment As” drop down box to “anonymous”).

5 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I never let the older brother grab the new toys from the baby. It was always important to identify the baby’s things as separate and not available for the older one to poach. I would ask the older one to bring something appropriate to switch with what the baby was holding and then say “Let’s see if the baby is ready to share with you.”

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just wanted to tell you how much I love getting your newsletters. With two jobs, two kids, two dogs, a sick mom, a house and my husband, there is little time to participate in all that Or Ami has to offer…but your newsletters are inspiring, and being a part of the congregation has brought so much into our lives. Our girls LOVE Kesher and teach us every day. We enjoy the warmth of Shabbat on Friday nights now, as our Emily has taught us the prayers and how to light the candles…It’s pretty special…

    Anyway…we just think you’re terrific and I thought I’d take a minute to let you know and to say thank you!

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