Pandemic Parenting: Can You Tame the Sibling Rivalry Beast?

By Dennis Rainey

As we roll into month seven of the Covid-19 pandemic, conflict abounds … between spouses (divorce is increasing) … between parents and children (everyone can be a bit tired and cranky) … and most certainly between siblings (this is the perfect storm for kids to find fresh ways to pester and bicker at one another).

I just asked Barbara, “What was the best thing we did about sibling rivalry?” Barbara’s response was clearly authentic: “NOTHING comes to mind! We never conquered it and it was one of my biggest parenting failures. Truth be told, the beast still roams around in our family.”

As we raised our two sons and four daughters from childhood through early adulthood, we experienced more than our fair share of conflict within our brood. We were eyewitnesses of what the Bible calls the “deeds of the flesh” spoken of in Galatians 5:19-21. So much so that I decided to rewrite this graphic Scripture passage in honor of the decayed, depraved nature of toddlers through teens and also in us as their parents. Here it goes …

“But the deeds of youthful flesh (and their parents) are evident, which are undone chores, dirty rooms, meanness, sassiness, rolling eyes, slamming doors, punching, kicking holes in the wall, wrestling, ripping doors off their hinges and stomping of feet, all of which is accompanied with sour, distorted faces, complete with a glare at a brother or sister. Lying, cheating and stealing from one another. Sibling-aimed outbursts of biting, hitting, badgering, bickering, name calling, snippy hurtful words, cut downs, tattling, taunting and disrespectful attitudes. Now abide bossiness, bad attitudes, incessant arguing and fighting with a brother and/or sister, but the most annoying of these is the continuous friction between siblings who don’t get along well.”

Selah. (Which is Hebrew for “pause and think about it.”)

Sibling rivalry in Scripture

From Genesis to Revelation, conflict between brothers and sisters is a common infestation in family relationships.

Cain and Abel escalated their civil war and ultimately ended it with murder.

Joseph’s brothers were filled with resentment and conspired against him, deceived him and their father, then sold him into slavery.

King David’s son Absalom not only had one of his brothers, Amnon, murdered, but was also a bully spreading fear in all the king’s sons as they watched. They fled.

And although conflict between Jesus and His half-brother, James, isn’t mentioned in Scripture, I can imagine that James likely experienced jealousy of his brother who really was perfect. Do you think Mary and Joseph ever struggled with favoring Jesus over James?

Sibling rivalry is real. Disheartening to parents. And it can divide and destroy families … for generations.

My grandson is kissing his sister now...But in just a few months I am confident he will be stealing her toys!

The overview

When it comes to conflict in families, two anchor points are essential to understand before we unpack practical ways to disarm siblings at war with one another.

1. Realize your marriage is a model of how two broken, selfish people surrender to Christ and seek to relate to one another with honor, respect, and love. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” A few verses later it also mentions the wives: “… and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (5:33).

Don’t expect your children to honor and speak respectfully to one another if you speak disrespectfully to your spouse and/or to them. Confession to God, to your spouse, and to your children may be the most important starting point.

2. As we parented for nearly 3 decades, Barbara and I became 100 percent convinced that the family is God’s appointed incubator for discipling your children in how to resolve conflict in relationships.

Paul coaches us, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Think with me for a moment: What institution did God design to demonstrate and instruct the next generation in how to respond and resolve conflict with another person?

It’s in a family where the love of Christ makes its home among imperfect people.

Parents are to relentlessly model and train their children in the necessities of kindness, being tenderhearted, and forgiving one another. Where will a child have the best chance to repeatedly see and experience what genuine asking for and granting forgiveness looks like? It’s in your family.

Your children will spend the rest of their lives relating with other imperfect people … a spouse, friendships, fellow workers, and in the church. Sibling conflicts create the opportunity to equip your children on how to ask for forgiveness when they’ve wronged another and how to forgive and give up the right to punish another person when they’ve been hurt.

Some practical tips

Here are some of the best things Barbara and I learned over four decades on the frontlines of parenting and sibling rivalry, even into adulthood. Treat these like a smorgasbord and go on a date with your spouse to decide one or two things you need to execute now.

1. As a parent don’t fall into one of these four traps of sibling rivalry:

· Trap #1: Favoritism. If you tend to have a favorite child, be careful about giving him/her a pass—it can feed the jealousy monster in the other children.

· Trap #2: Denial. Don’t pretend conflict doesn’t exist or just passively it let it go. Conflict needs to be dealt with. Unresolved conflict comes with a guarantee: Isolation.

· Trap #3: Losing hope. We battled this … so overwhelmed by the amount of conflict between our six kids that we were tempted to quit. Don’t give up or give in.

· Trap #4: Losing sight of the goal. You are training your children to be mature about how they treat those they love.

2. Don’t just play defense with sibling rivalry; go on the offensive by training your children to practice “honoring one another.”

The word “honor” in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament means “heavy” or “weight.” It means to “lay it on them,” i.e., words of appreciation, praise, or value on another. Paul exhorts us, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). This is the best kind of competition between children.

Lead your children in memorizing Romans 12:10, then set up some kind of competition for a week to emphasize showing honor to one another.

3. When your kids can’t work out the conflict on their own, give them the coveted privilege of doing additional chores together.

We had a wooden box (8 inches long and 2 inches wide/tall), entitled “Chore Box: For those who care so little and do their very LEAST!” When two kids couldn’t get along, we’d tell them to reach in and grab one of the 25-30 folded slips of paper. These had some really nasty chores printed on them.

Like: Clean all the toilets, clean the bathtubs and showers, wash all the dishes for a week by hand, sweep out the garage, sweep the driveway, clean the mold off the window sills with a toothbrush, vacuum the entire house, clean out our van (which at any given moment had enough food on the floor that could feed a small African nation), help dad move rocks and build pathways (those pathways are still here), etc.

There’s more to this story about that Chore Box that I’ll save for the end.

4. Take an inventory of repeated “Conflict Zones” between children and demilitarize them with a creative game plan for rewards or penalties to address the issue.

Like: Saturday morning chores, which was almost a guarantee to create squabbles between sibs who were roommates.

One father had two sons, who were responsible for taking the trash out to the curb each week. They battled each other and their parents for whose week it was to do this chore until finally this dad decided it was time for them to “own” their mutual chore. So, when the garbage didn’t get done on time, the garbage cans took up residence in their room for one week. They never argued about that ever again!

Like: Who sits in the front seat with dad when he drove them to school? Our answer: Organize a lottery to draw names and assign spots permanently for each child by day.

Like: Who cleans the kitchen after breakfast and dinner? Our answer: Assign two children to each meal, seven days a week. If they complained, they earned the privilege of pulling out an additional chore out of the Chore Box.

Like: Traveling on vacations, when they bickered endlessly. Our answer: We put together a jar with about $25 worth of dimes. We sat that jar on our van’s dashboard and promised the kids that when we arrived at our vacation spot we’d split the coins between them. But every time they tattled, bickered with one another, complained about their sibs, etc., we’d take one coin out of the jar. If they complained or were sassy when we took a coin, we’d take another … until they stopped complaining. I was always amazed at how the conflicts dried up within the first 100 miles!

5. When facing a repeated offense between children, give them the option of working it out together or getting a chore to do together.

When our sons repeatedly quarreled with one another and refused to do their chores together, we gave them the assignment of washing windows together. One son was on the outside cleaning and the other was on the inside, working on the same window. They couldn’t help but laugh as they looked at each other through the window.

A pair of my Grandaughters washing windows together