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You may think that the constant arguments between your children are energy-sapping annoyances designed to drive you to the point of distraction and that in time they will fade. But just look at the Milibands. The best move, when you are stuck in the thick of it, is to take a step back. What you are really experiencing is a crash course in management training and human psychology. So what are the different stages of the training and what can they teach you?
1. Low level sibling rivalry. This covers mild tantrums eg when a younger child has grabbed an older child’s favourite Spiderman toy. You must understand that this is, even at this low level, not just about the first child’s love of the red and black webbed wonder, but so much more. This is about the loss of a sense of entitlement – the first born suddenly seeing their charmed existence as Most Fascinating Person in the world ebbing away as the horrible realisation dawns that things can most certainly not only get better. There may be a brief hiatus when they grow up and someone falls in love with them where MFP status is restored, but by then it is too late for there will always be the underlying sense that this may be but a temporary phase in a world where there is always someone potentially more interesting than them.
There are several potential paths to tread with this sort of sibling rivalry. Bearing in mind that repeated entreaties not to fight and to love one another will never work, start with the basic approach and move up the scale if this doesn’t work. 1) Sympathise with the older child and tell the younger one off. Return Spiderman. 2) Begin a sort of shuttle diplomacy session. Tell the older child that they are older and therefore will comprehend that the younger child does not understand the concept of ownership yet and that it is their job – and yours – to teach them. Start going on to the younger child about how respecting other people’s toys – and sharing your own – is the entry to a whole new world of fun. 3) Explain the concept of ownership to the younger child in words of no more than two syllables and with reference to the Marvel comic characters. 4) Explain the concept of sharing to the older child and how civilisation is based on cooperation. NB Don’t let them watch the news. 5) Begin a rambling discussion of how you love everyone equally, but the older one has to accept that they now have a younger sibling and this sort of thing is but the start of years of aggravation, but that, on the flip side if they master this, they could have a friend for life. NB this approach NEVER works with teenagers or politicians, despite vague, yet factually correct statements about remaining “brothers for life” 6) Start having a mild tantrum yourself. NB this can be effective in the short term, but will bring waves of self-questioning and guilt about your poor parenting skills and could well end up with you apologising to them.
2. Mid-level rivalry. For example, unhelpful comments about a sibling’s intellectual capacity, fashion sense, etc. This is made worse by reference to something you may have said in passing which they have reworked to mean that “mum actually backed me up on this”. Another example of mid-level rivalry is ongoing squabbles about positions in the car, on the sofa, at the table, etc. If one person, usually the eldest child, covets a particular position, you can bet your bottom dollar that everyone else will in due course and that there will be high-level strategic campaigning to get said spot as well as Machiavellian ploys, such as nabbing the spot while the person who was there first has gone to the toilet. Although you should, of course, deny backing up anything, it may be useful to divert attention by making the whole thing all about you eg by addressing in depth the ‘mum backed me up’ stuff or plonking yourself in the coveted position. This could unite the siblings against a common foe, you, and have a strange bonding effect. Also, if you try to inject a tiny bit of humour into the proceedings by pointing out the essential absurdity of the situation it can almost make it fun [for you, in any event]. Alternatively, it can result in all-out war [see 3].
3. High-level rivalry. This includes catching siblings with their hands round each other’s throats, taking a sibling’s job, knifing your sibling in the back when they fail to win an election, locking people out of the house/on the roof, setting fire to their belongings etc. This is usually best dealt with by attempting to send both parties to separate rooms [after getting them off the roof etc] and holding peace talks. Try to get them to admit their guilt while appearing to be understanding of the basic rationale [or lack of it] behind their actions [see no. 1]. If what they have done is truly dastardly, which they will, of course, try to justify and blame on the other party, and in the absence of any meaningful apology, full sanctions should be imposed. If possible, delegate oversight of said sanctions to a supposedly neutral peacekeeping force [eg your partner] and retire to the bath.
All of the above can clearly be mapped onto the world of work, particularly the shuttle diplomacy and the appeals to a sense of team spirit, but at least at work there is some modicum of rationality involved.