Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some sibling fights aren't all that harmless

The general thinking, as far as I can tell, is that sibling fighting--something I've yet to witness in my two little guys, but dread, if only for the noise--has a function. They're learning how to resolve conflict. They're becoming proficient in something called theory of mind, i.e. learning to intuit what others think and feel. And probably some other things we're not sure of.

But a new study from the University of Missourri on sibling pairs between the ages of 8 and 20 suggests that squabbles that involve intrusions on physical and emotional space--like borrowing something without asking, or hanging around when they're not wanted--do have a negative impact on the siblings relationship. 

"When these issues were present, both younger and older siblings reported less trust and communication," says lead researcher Nicole Campione-Barr, assistant professor in the Missourri University Department of Pscychological Sciences. (Not surprisingly, older siblings reported these kinds of incursions more often than younger siblings.) Campione-Barr also noted that fights about equality and fairness, i.e. sharing responsibilities, had no impact on the quality of the siblings' relationships with one another.

It's interesting. I've been told that its best to stay out of sibling fights. (I've been told because I ask--I'm very curious about what parents should do--or not do--in hopes of promoting good relationships between siblings.)

Campione-Barr herself mentions the stay-out-of-it advice. "Previous research tells us that parents should step aside because they have a tendency to make matters worse," she says. But in this case, she says parents should step in. “Parents need to establish and enforce family rules about respecting privacy, personal space and property,” Campione-Barr said. “However, when sibling conflicts occur, there needs to be negotiations between siblings."
I often find the take away advice from studies silly, or questionable. But this one makes a lot of sense to me. I'm a hybrid--part sibling, part only child. I did have a brother growing up, but he lived in the hospital for most of my life, in a sterile room that prohibited physical fights and the sharing of toys etc. I like my personal space, and my stuff, and am pretty sensitive to having it trespassed upon--so I'm more than willing to step in to make sure my kids respect each other's space and belongings. 

I'm betting, however, that it's one of those things that sounds a lot easier than it is. We shall see. I'm already anticipating (and not in a good way) the day that Luke decides he has as much fun dismantling Henry's trains as Henry has assembling them.


mrjumbo said...

Hmmm. It would be interesting to superimpose the same thoughts on conflicts couples have. If your partner takes things without asking, does that have a negative effect on your trust? When you have a conversation about who should wash dishes, does it reinforce your relationship?

I guess (ignoring the topic completely) I might also distinguish between fights and argumentative discussions. We all need tools (as grownups or kids) to engage with people with whom we disagree. There are more and less healthy ways to express and resolve disagreement, no matter what the content of that conflict may be. A parent might want to watch the texture of the engagement as well as thinking about the topic of the squabble.

No matter what they're arguing about, when knives come out, I think it's time for a parent to step in.

I have very different relations with my various siblings, and it's hard to tease out how much of that comes from our experiences as kids and how much from our experiences as adults. One thing Mom always made clear to us was that we would all have each other long after she was around to defuse any disagreements, so she hoped we would learn to get along and work together.

It's been an interesting ride.

Anonymous said...

When our boys were growing up, and would start rough-housing in the living room or playroom, I would have to ask my husband if it was normal! He grew up with a brother close in age; my siblings were so much older than I was that I had no real idea of what was normal in terms of that kind of thing. Usually my policy was to let them work it out with small scuffles as well. BUT we always insisted that our boys be kind to each other, and polite to each other, just as my husband and I aim to be. We all lapse, of course, but if the family ethic is politeness as well as closeness, I think you will all win. Our sons are very different from each other (probably in part because they differentiated) and I don't know if they would be friends had they not been brothers, but the are very close and know each other very well. And now they are so much bigger than I am, I make sure to be kind to them so they won't put me out on an ice floe when I'm .. oh never mind. I'm not going there.