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MAN & CHILD: Two by four

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Both my children were born in May. My daughter Jinaki will be four years old at 9.43 am today; her brother Kyle turned two last Tuesday at 7.22 pm.

Everyone always says that every child is different, but I never quite believed it until my son came along. Not only does he look different, but his temperament is also distinct from his sister’s–she is more intense and fussy, he is laid back and cheerful.

I have no idea whether this predicts their adult personalities, though—my mother tells me I was a very pleasant child.

At any rate, one of our main concerns when Kyle came along was, naturally, how Jinaki would react and how the two of them would get along.

The plethora of parenting books I use to inform this column were no help at all. As far as sibling relationships go, the research seems to be all over the place.

Some writers assert that sibling rivalry is peculiar to Western developed nation, and doesn’t exist in more traditional societies.

The reason, they say, is because in non-Western societies, older siblings are often the care-givers of the younger ones, so the dynamic is different.

Some recommend teaching the children how to mediate conflict; others say that forcing children to share their toys and other things sparks off rivalry; others say that the rivalry is rooted in competition for parental attention.

In their book NurtureShock, writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman assert that conflict prevention, not conflict resolution, is more effective. They also cite research showing that the best predictive factor for how an older sibling will treat the younger one is the older child’s relationship with her best friend–if reciprocal, it will be same with sibling.

“Older siblings train on their friends, and then apply what they know to their little brothers and sisters,” they write.

Oddly enough, behaviour in preschool doesn’t predict this–it’s the specific relationship with the preschool friend. I know that Jinaki has a best friend in school but I know nothing about the girl, so I suppose I’ll have to inquire how she and Jinaki get along.

Bronson and Merryman also say that “the tone established when they were very young, be it controlling and bossy or sweet and considerate, tended to stay that way.” But Jinaki are all those ways with Kyle, so that’s no help to me.

Child psychologist Alison Gopnik says in The Scientist in the Crib that: “Younger siblings tend to be more charming and socially skilful, if less ambitious and domineering than older siblings.”

This is true so far of Kyle, who watched me hosing down his shoes after we went to the beach last Sunday and said, “Thank you for washing my shoes, Daddy.”

So, even accepting that sibling rivalry is peculiar to Western countries, the parenting experts are still not in consensus about how to deal with it. So it’s probably best for each parents to choose which explanation they think best fits their family.


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