The Myth of the “Normal” Sibling Rivalry
How can sibling rivarly be healthy if school bullying is pathological?
Posted August 5, 2013
Ask parents who have two or more children, “How do your kids get along with each other?” and you will often hear, “They have the normal sibling rivalry. They fight all the time.”
Parents today become furious when schools fail to stop another kid from tormenting their child. But when it comes to their inability to make their own children stop tormenting to each other, they comfort themselves by telling themselves it is “normal.”
Parents who haven't studied psychology in depth can be forgiven for capitulating to the natural human urge to avoid cognitive dissonance by using this rationalization. We are thrilled that it is now acceptable to blame schools for failing to do with hundreds of kids what most of us fail to accomplish with our own couple of kids at home. What is less forgivable is that social scientists, whose duty is to uncover the truth regardless how disturbing their revelations may be, promote the idea that sibling rivalry is normal and even healthy while school bullying is abnormal and devastatingly destructive.
The reason it is so easy to fool ourselves into condemning bullying while accepting sibling rivalry is because the word “normal” has more than one meaning. In the statistical sense it means that it falls within the range of most members of a group. Another commonly used meaning of “normal” is “psychologically healthy,” as in, “she is normal.” Conversely, “abnormal” is used to mean someone who is psychologically unhealthy.
Statistically, sibling rivalry is indeed quite normal. It goes on in many or even most families with two or more children. It is the rare family in which the children are always nice to each other. It is also a stubborn problem. The harder parents try to get rid of it, the worse it tends to become. So they get the impression that it is not only normal but inevitable. All they need to do is read the stories of all the early families in the Bible to have their impression validated.
Because sibling rivalry is commonly called normal–because statistically it is–people also get the impression that it must be healthy, as implied by the other meaning of normal. However, there is nothing healthy about it. An entire society may be infested with lice. Having lice in such a society is normal, but it is hardly healthy.
Part of the problem comes from the choice of the word “rivalry” to describe the ongoing hostile relationship between siblings. Rivalry is not necessarily a bad thing. It often refers to the relationship between competitors, as between two sports teams. Each strives to be superior to the other, to the betterment of both. The rival teams don’t want each other to disappear. There can be no game if there is no team to play against. They play by rules of fairness, and they tend to respect each other even as they try to defeat each other on the playing field.
This kind of rivalry hardly describes the situation we call sibling rivarly. It is not an ongoing saga of two siblings each trying to be better than the other. They are not playing fairly by any predetermined rules, and they don’t respect each other. They are angry, jealous and vengeful, and use underhanded tactics to torment each other and get each other punished by their parents. They may even hate each other and wish the other were never born. Sometimes their hatred and resentment last a lifetime, as it is common to find adults who have completely cut off contact with their sibling, to the great anguish of their parents.
No, there is nothing healthy about the “normal” sibling rivalry. It is a dysfunctional relationship that causes unnecessary pain not only to the kids involved but to the parents as well. The fact that most parents, even those who are mental health professionals, don't know how to make it stop, does not make it healthy. There is little that grieves parents like seeing their own children–the people they love the most in the world–in a constant state of war.
Personally, if I had a choice, I would rather have my children be best of friends while having a classmate bully them in school than the other way around. Schoolmates come and go, but siblings are forever.
So please, let's stop the hypocritical double standard. We have no business condemning bullying among kids in school as abnormal while simultaneously accepting sibling rivalry at home as normal.
Postscript: Fortunately, neither bullying in school nor sibling rivalry is inevitable. They both have simple, effective solutions, but the solutions are not the ones being promoted by the anti-bullying field. Research has shown that the common anti-bullying instructions rarely produce more than a minor reduction in bullying or make the problem even worse. For effective solutions, please refer to the list of recommended resources at the end of my previous blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychological-solution-bullying/201307/sibling-bullying-research-can-destroy-anti-bullying-move
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