Siblings Without Rivalry: Parenting Books Cliff Notes

Here is my Cliff Notes summary of Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

*** I really recommend reading this book.  It has many many many examples that are easily applied to any family.  It is a very fast read. 


This book is written from the point of view of a facilitator of weekly parenting workshops. Each chapter reads like a transcript of one week’s session.  You’ll read about different parenting challenges such as jealously, labeling and comparing amongst children. Each chapter is filled with anecdotes and great examples. The chapters each end with tips and guidelines and select stories from parents of their successes implementing them.

Brothers and Sisters – Past and Present

Our relationships with our siblings can have a powerful impact upon our early lives, producing intense feelings, positive or negative; that these same feelings can persist into our adult relationships with our brothers and sisters; and finally, that these feelings can even be passed on to the next generation. We need to stop focusing on turning siblings into friends, and begin to equip them with the attitudes and skills they’d need for all their caring relationships. They shouldn’t be hung up all their lives on who was right and who was wrong. They should be able to move past that kind of thinking and learn how to really listen to each other, how to respect the difference between them, how to find the ways to resolve those differences. Even if their personalities were such that they never could be friends, at least they would have the power to make a friend and be a friend.

Not ‘Till the Bad Feelings Come Out…

Sometimes it is hard to understand why siblings have such hateful feelings toward each other. Imagine your spouse puts an arm around you and says, “Honey, I love you so much, and  you’re so wonderful that I’ve decided to have another wife just like you.”

Tips and Guidelines

Brothers and sisters need to have their feelings about each other acknowledged with:

  • words that identify the feeling or
  • wishes, or
  • symbolic or creative activity.

Children need to have their hurtful actions stopped and shown how to discharge angry feeling acceptably.

Guideline Your child says… Instead of answering… Say…
Instead of dismissing negative feelings about a sibling, acknowledge the feelings by putting feelings into words. You’re always with the baby. No, I’m not. Didn’t I just read to you? You don’t like my spending so much time with her.
Ma, Bobby said I sound like a moron! Oh, just ignore him. A comment like that could make you mad!
He does it on purpose! He only burps when I’m around. Big deal! You feel he does it just to irritate you.
Give children in fantasy what they don’t have in reality by expressing what the child might want. Send the baby back! You don’t mean that. You know you love her. You don’t want her here. Sometimes you wish she’d go away.
I heard him laughing about me with his friends. So what? That’s how boys are. That hurt your feelings. You wish he’d show some loyalty to his sister.
He always decides to drum when I’m trying to do homework. Take it easy. Just close your door. That can be annoying. You wish he’d check with you before he starts to play.
Help children channel their hostile feelings into symbolic or creative outlets by encouraging creative expression. What are you trying to do? Break her arm? You’re a bad boy! No hurting your sister! You can show me your feelings with your doll.
She’s mean. She never let’s me go with her. Stop whining. You know she doesn’t want a kid sister tagging along. That hurt your feelings. You wish he’d show some loyalty to his sister.
Look what she did to my blouse! I’d like to take one of hers and rip it up! That’s sick! I think your sister needs to know how enraged you are, in writing.
Stop hurtful behaviour. Show how angry feelings can be discharged safely, refrain from attacking the attacker by showing better ways of expressing anger. That’s a nasty thing to do to the baby! She only touched your blocks. No punching! Tell your sister how angry you are with words not fists!
You stole a dime, dirty thief! That’s a terrible thing to call your own brother! You sound furious! But I expect you to confront your brother without calling names.
The greedy pig ate all the cookies! You’ve done the same to him. Instead of name calling, tell him how you feel or what you want.

The Perils of Comparisons

So far we had been talking about the fiercely competitive feelings that children bring to the sibling relationship all by themselves, without any help from us grown-ups. How do adults contribute to the competition? We compare! By making comparisons we definitely heat up the rivalry.

Tips and Guidelines
Resist the urge to compare. Instead of comparing one child to another, speak to the child only about the behaviour that pleases or displeases you. Describe what you see, what you feel, and what needs to be done.
Guideline Instead of… Say…
Avoid favourable comparisons by describing what you see or feel. You’re a big boy. You don’t leave your things lying around like the baby. I see you picked up your blocks, your truck and even put away your puzzle pieces.
I wish your brother had your study habits. He can’t concentrate for more than a minute. You’ve been going over that vocabulary list for a half hour!
You always look so beautiful. Your sister looks like she gets dressed in the dark. I like the way the lavender blouse picks up on the purple in the skirt.
Avoid unfavourable comparisons by describing the problem. That’s disgusting! Even the baby doesn’t spill all over herself. There’s a little milk dripping down the front of your shirt.
How come your brother manages to get home on time for his music lessons and you never do? Your guitar teacher has been waiting 10 minutes.
 Don’t you dare call me slow. Your sister never talks to me that way. Your guitar teacher has been waiting 10 minutes.

Equal Is Less

To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely – for one’s own special self – is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.

Tips and Guidelines

Children don’t need to be treated equally. They need to be treated uniquely. Instead of giving equal amounts, give according to individual need. Instead of showing equal love, show the child he or she is loved uniquely.

Instead of worrying about giving equal amounts, focus on each child’s individual need.

Guideline Instead of… Say…
Instead of giving equal time, give time according to need. Child: You gave him more than me!
Adult: I did not. I gave you each four.
Child: But his are bigger!
Child: You gave him more than me!
Adult: Oh, are you still hungry?
Child: A little.
Adult: Would you like a half a pancake or are you hungry enough for a whole one?
Instead of claiming equal love, show children how they’re loved uniquely. Child: Who do you love the best?
Adult: I love you all the same.
Child: You’re just saying that.
Child: Who do you love the best?
Adult: Each of you is special to me. You are my only Robin. There’s not another like you. No one has your thoughts, your feelings, your smile. I’m so glad you’re my daughter.
Child: You really love me.
Equal time can feel like less. Give time in terms of need. Child 1 and adult are speaking.
Child 2: Mommy, you talked to her too long. I want to tell you something.
Adult: I’ll be right with you. Janie let’s wind this up.
Child 1: No fair, he always gets what he wants.
Child 1 and adult are speaking.
Child 2: Mommy, you talked to her too long. I want to tell you something.
Adult: You’re right. I have been spending a lot of time with your sister. Her birthday party is important. There’s lots to plan and I want to give it my full attention. I know it’s not easy to wait. When I’m finished I want to hear what you have on your mind.
Child 2: When I need her, Mommy will be there for me, too.

Siblings in Roles

We need to prepare our children for life outside the family. And life demands that we assume many roles. We need to know how to care for and be cared for; how to be leaders and followers; how to be serious and a little wild; how to live with disorder and how to create order. Why limit our children? Why not encourage all of them to take changes, explore their potential, discover their strengths they never dreamed lay within them.

Tips and Guidelines

If Johnny attacks his brother, attend to the brother without attacking Johnny.

Guideline Instead of… Try…
Don’t give your attention to the aggressor. Attend to the injured party instead. Child: Ow! She bit me!
Adult: What’s going on here? How many times do I have to tell you not to do that? You’re to leave your sister alone. You come with me, I can’t trust you.
Child: Ow! She bit me!
Adult: Bit you! Let me see. Oh, it’s all red. That must hurt. People are not for biting. Your sister needs to learn to ask for what she wants with words. Even when she’s angry.

Let no one lock a child into a role;

  • not his parents,
  • not the child himself, and
  • not his brothers or sisters.
Guideline Instead of… The parent can…
No more bullies. The parent treating the child as a bully.Child: Get outta my room or I’ll clobber you.
Adult: Mike, you’re being a bully.
Help him see that he’s capable of being civil.Adult: No clobbering! You know how to get what you need without using physical force.
The other siblings treating him as a bully.Child: Daddy, he said he’d kick the board if we didn’t let him play. He’s mean. Give the siblings a new view of their brother.Adult: He knows how to be nice, too, and ask for what he want in a friendly way.
The child seeing himself as a bully.Child 1: My teddy bear!
Child 2: I’m a meanie!
Help him see his capacity for kindness.Adult: You also know how to be a “kindee”. And I expect you to start right now.
No more victims. The parent treating the child as a victim.Child: Mike said I have to share my new yo-yo.
Adult: Poor baby. Is your brother being mean again?
Show her how to stand up for herself.Adult: You can tell your brother ‘Daddy bought it for me. It’s mine. I decide if I want to share it’.
The other siblings treating her as a victim.Children: Let’s tell her there’s poison in her ice cream. Then we can have it. Give the siblings a new view of their sister.Adult: Save your breath, kids. Your sister is too strong to be conned out of her ice cream.
The child seeing herself as the victim.Child: Ma! He’s making ugly faces. I’m scared!
Adult: Stop that! You know your sister is easily frightened!
Help her see her potential strength.Adult: I’ll bet you could make a real ugly face back at him if you want to.
Children with problems do not need to be viewed as problem children. They do need:
  • Acceptance of their frustration.
  • Appreciation for what they have accomplished.
  • Help in focusing on solutions.
Guideline Instead of… The parent can…
No more problem children. Instead of focusing on children’s disabilities, focus on their abilities. Child: That’s too fast!
Adult: Be careful with that ball. You know your sister isn’t strong.
Adult: Hey, you almost caught it and that was a fast ball!
Child: And the dog b…b…b… I can’t read this. I’m dumb.
Adult: You’re not dumb. You have a reading disability.
Adult: Reading can be hard. The word rhymes with “park”.
Child: Oh. Then it’s “barked”.
Child: Dad, he’s pulling out his hair!
Adult: Cut it out! You’re acting crazy!
Adult: That is so frustrating when you work out part of a puzzle and get stuck.

When the Kids Fight

How to handle the fighting.

Level Steps to Take Examples
1: Normal bickering
  1. Ignore it. Think about your next vacation.
  2. Tell yourself the children are having an important experience in conflict resolution.

2: Situation is heating up. Adult intervention might be helpful.
  1. Acknowledge their anger.
  2. Reflect each child’s point of view.
  3. Describe the problem with respect.
  4. Express confidence in the children’s ability to find their own solution.
  5. Leave the room.

You two sound mad at each other!So Sara, you want to keep on holding the puppy because he’s just settled down in your arms. And Billy, you feel you’re entitled to a turn, too.That’s a tough one: two children and only one puppy.I have confidence that you two can work out a solution that’s fair to each of you and fair to the puppy.
3: Situation possibly dangerous.
  1. Inquire.
  2. Let the children know.
  3. Respect your feelings.

Is this a play fight or a real fight? (Play fights are permitted. Real fights are not.)Play fighting by mutual consent only. (If it’s not fun for both, it’s got to stop.)You may be playing, but it’s too rough for me. You need to find another activity.
4: Situation definitely dangerous! Adult intervention necessary.
  1. Describe what you see.
  2. Separate the children.
I see two very angry children who are about to hurt each other.It’s not safe to be together. We must have a cooling-off period. Quick, you to your room, and you to yours.

When the children can’t work out a problem by themselves:

  1. Call a meeting of the antagonists. Explain the purpose and the ground rules.
  2. Write down each child’s feelings and concerns, and read them aloud.
  3. Allow time for rebuttal.
  4. Invite everyone to come up with solutions. Write down all ideas without evaluating.
  5. Decide upon the solution you all can live with.
  6. Follow-up.

How to give support to the child who asks for it without taking sides.

Steps to Take Examples
  1. State each child’s case.
  2. State the value or rule.
  3. Leave the doorway open for the possibility of negotiation.
Let me get this straight. Jimmy, you need the crayons to finish your homework. And Amy, you want to finish colouring.Homework assignments get top priority.But Jimmy, if you want to work something out with your sister, that’s up to you.

More Ways to Encourage Good Feelings Between Brothers and Sisters

      • Make sure each child gets some time alone with you several times a week.  This one-on-one connection provides the emotional nourishment kids need to be more caring or at the very least more tolerant of their siblings. Once you set the time aside, honour it. Don’t let a phone call break the mood. Your child will always remember your saying, “Hello, Mrs. Jones. May I call you back? Right now Johnny and I are spending time together.” He will have a greater sense of his own value.
      • When spending time with one child, don’t talk about the other. You don’t want your child to think, “Even when Debbie isn’t here, she takes Mom away from me.”
      • Don’t withhold your affection or attention from your “favourite child” in order to make it up to a less favoured child. All each child needs from a parent is a full and realistic appreciation for who he or she is.
      • Don’t lock the children in their position in the family constellation (oldest, youngest, middle). Allow each child the opportunity to experience some of the privileges and responsibilities of the other. Part of what creates deep resentment between siblings is the demand by parents that they always maintain their family position.
      • Don’t get trapped by togetherness. Don’t force kids together if there is irritation between them. It could drive them further apart. Give everyone more breathing space with different kinds of adult-child combinations.
      • Let each child know what it is about him that his siblings like or admire. Just knowing about a sibling’s positive feelings can make for a dramatic shift in a relationship.
      • Schedule family meetings. You wouldn’t expect your car to run without periodic refueling and maintenance.

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