Siblings Without Rivalry - Book Summary Part 1

Siblings Without Rivalry - Book Summary Part 1

Dhul Qa'dah means to sit or to rest. It is the first of the four sacred months (followed by Dhul Hijjah, Muharram and Rajab), during which fighting is forbidden. With this in mind, I decided that we should focus on sibling rivalry, as a theme for the Dhul Qa'dah Mama Book Tour with Shade 7, for the new My First Islamic Months Book.

Sibling rivalry is a pertinent topic for many families and inshaAllah I hope that what I share will be beneficial for us all! Ameen ❤️

I recently read the book, Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, the #1 best-selling guide to reducing hostility and generating goodwill between siblings.

Sibling rivalry – at its worst – can demoralise children and even cause permanent damage. Experts agree that the root of sibling jealousy is each child’s deep desire for the exclusive love of his parents. As parents, we can either intensify the competition or reduce it. This can be done through our attitude and words – both of which are very powerful.

I’ve prepared a summary of the key teachings below but I would definitely recommend this book as a practical guide to manage sibling rivalry, it has many examples which can be easily applied in your family. The structure makes it a really easy read –each chapter has explanations, anecdotal examples and more through comic strips, and summaries at the end, making it easily digestible.

Chapter 1 – Brothers and Sisters – Past and Present

The relationship between siblings is powerful: it can have a significant impact upon our early lives, producing intense feelings (positive or negative), and these feelings can persist into our relationships with our siblings as adults. These feelings can even be passed on to the next generation. As parents, instead of focusing on turning siblings into friends, rather focus on equipping them with the attitudes and skills they’d need for all their caring relationships. Instead of trying to end a shouting match, we should try help them go from that to a rational discussion. They shouldn’t be hung up on who was right or who was wrong, but rather they should be able to move past that kind of thinking and learn how to really listen to each other, how to respect the differences between them and how to resolve those differences. Even if their personalities were such that they could never be friends, at least they would have the power to make a friend and be a friend. 

In this chapter, the authors encourage you to observe what stirs things up between your children, and write down the incidents or observations that distress you.

Chapter 2 – Not Till The Bad Feelings Come Out

To help understand why siblings sometimes have such hateful feelings towards each other, the authors give the example of your spouse putting their arm around you and saying, “I love you so much and you’re so wonderful that I’ve decided to have another spouse just like you.” They elaborate on this example to demonstrate how difficult it can be for a child to become a sibling.

It is important to acknowledge your children’s feelings and wishes about each other, even the unsavoury ones. To achieve this, instead of dismissing negative feelings one child has about another, you can use:

  • words to acknowledge their feelings (e.g “It must be very hard for you… You can take as much time as you want to tell me what’s bothering you… I want to know how you feel, because your feelings are very important to me.”),

  • words to acknowledge their wishes (e.g. “You wish he had asked before taking your toy” or “You wish the baby would go away sometimes.”)

  • a symbolic or creative activity (e.g. “Let’s make a private property sign to put on your special cupboard.”)

 “Insisting upon good feelings between the children led to bad feelings. Allowing for bad feelings between the children led to good feelings. A circuitous route to sibling harmony. And yet, the most direct.”

It is important to distinguish between allowing feelings (children should be permitted to express all their feelings) and allowing actions (not allowing them to hurt each other). Stop any hurtful behaviour and show how angry feelings can be discharged safely, without attacking the attacker. You can show better ways to express anger by encouraging them to use their words and expressing their feelings or needs, without insulting or hurting each other.

Initially, just saying “use your words” may be difficult for them to comprehend, so you may need to give them examples to use (e.g. “Don’t grab it, rather use your words to tell him how angry you are, and you don’t want him to use that without your permission.”)

Of course, the best way to help a child learn civilised discourse is to model the behaviour ourselves, so consider the ways in which we express our feelings with other people.

Chapter 3 – The Perils of Comparisons

The previous chapters discussed fiercely competitive feelings that children bring to the sibling relationship themselves, without adult involvement. Adults, however, can and do contribute to the competition, through the comparisons we make, intensifying the rivalry between siblings.

Sometimes unfavourable comparisons can have the exact opposite result of what you’re trying to achieve: If I can’t be best at being best, I’ll be best at being worst – and this may actually result in the child deciding to excel at being bad. Not all children have that fight in them though, some just give up trying because they don’t believe they can do better.

The authors strongly advise us to resist the urge to compare. Instead of comparing one child to another, speak to that child only about the behaviour that either pleases or displeases you. Describe what you see, what you feel, and, if necessary, what needs to be done.

Practical guidelines:

  • Avoid favourable comparisons by describing what you see or feel (instead of “You’re a big boy. You don’t leave things lying around like the baby,” rather say: “I see you picked up your blocks, your truck and even put away your puzzle pieces.”)

  • Avoid unfavourable comparisons by describing the problem (instead of “That’s disgusting, even the baby doesn’t spill all over herself,” rather say: “There’s a little milk dripping down the front of your shirt”; instead of “Your brother is never late for his classes, why is it so difficult for you to be on time,” rather say “Your teacher has been waiting for 10 minutes).

Even favourable comparisons can be harmful – such “praise” can give one child a vested interest in keeping the other down. Save the enthusiastic comments for the ear of the deserving child.

The authors note that, while comparisons may be a spur to accomplishment, it comes at a price. Intense competition can result in physical symptoms (headaches, stomach aches and backaches) and emotional symptoms (anxiety, suspicion and hostility), and our homes should be a haven from this kind of stress.

Chapter 4 – Equal is Less

Many parents are naturally inclined to treat each child equally. The authors assert that children don’t need to be treated equally, they need to be treated uniquely. Instead of giving equal amounts, rather give according to each child’s individual need.

Though we may feel that we need to show our children that we love them equally, to be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely – for our own special self – is to be loved as much as we need to be loved, and that is what we should aim to show our children.

  • Instead of giving equal, give according to need

    • Instead of this: Child: ‘You gave him more than me’; Adult: ‘I did not, I gave you each four’; Child: ‘But his are bigger’

    • Rather try this: Child: ‘You gave him more than me’; Adult: ‘Oh, are you still hungry?’; Child: ‘A little.’; Adult: ‘Would you like half a pancake or are you hungry enough for a full one?’

    • Another example of acknowledging feelings: ‘It can be hard to watch your sister get new pyjamas when you’re not, even though you know all the reasons why she needs them and you don’t, it can still bother you’.

    • Another example: ‘We know that in this family each child will gets what’s right for her – somethings your brother will get, sometimes you will get, but in the end everybody’s needs will be met.’

    • It’s also important to not allow the child who receives the item to flaunt it, so that the other child doesn’t feel worse.

  • Instead of claiming equal love, show children how they’re loved uniquely

    • Instead of “I love you all the same”

    • Rather try: “Each of you are special to me. You are my only Laila, there’s not another like you. No one has your thoughts, your feelings, your smile. I’m so glad you’re my daughter.” The latter will leave the child believing you really love them, whereas the former will leave the child thinking you’re just saying that (to be fair).

  • Equal time can feel like less. Give time in terms of need.

    • Instead of this: While child 1 and adult are speaking, Child 2: “You talked to her for too long. I want to tell you something.” Adult responds, “I’ll be right with you” and tells Child 1 let’s hurry this up. Child 1 feels it’s unfair, that Child 2 always gets what he wants.

    • Rather try this, in response to Child 1: “You’re right, I have been spending a lot of time with your sister, we’re speaking about something that’s important to her. I know it’s not easy to wait. When I’m finished, I want to hear what you have on your mind.” Child 1 feels her needs are important and Child 2 also feels that, when he needs her, his mother will be there for him too.

The authors clarify, there will be times when it will be the obvious and right thing to give the identical item to each time – however, if you decide not to give equally, for whatever reason, that’s all right too. The children who fail to receive won’t go under – your understanding and acceptance of their disappointment will help them to deal with life’s inequities.

What about favouritism?

How do you protect the other children in the family from our enthusiasm for that one child who speaks to our heart – i.e. how to make sure you don’t show favouritism. If you want to stop showing it, first be aware that you feel it. Knowing our bias immediately puts you in a better position to protect the ‘less favoured’ children; and it helps us to protect our favoured child, as well, from the pressure of having to maintain his position and from the inevitable hostility of his siblings.

It is necessary that we take another look at the less favoured child, seek out her specialness, then reflect the wonder of it back to her. By valuing and being partial to each child’s individuality, we make sure that each of our children feels like a number one child.


Summaries of Chapters 5 - 8 will be posted this weekend inshaAllah.

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