Fight Club

Words: Emma Howarth

It doesn’t matter how much you’re moaning about your swollen ankles and illicit lust for camembert, when you’re pregnant with your second, third or any subsequent child, there’s always someone ready to look you straight in the eye and declare that giving your son or daughter a sibling is the best decision you’ve ever mad.

And three years later when the toddler’s got the baby in a headlock and you’re about to lose your shit in Waitrose? Suddenly these bearers of good sibling tidings are nowhere to be seen.

Matching outfits, joyful bonhomie, Christmas charades by candlelight… whatever harmonious idyll you envisage to get you through the watermelon stage of pregnancy, it’s not unusual to find your little angels have stamped all over it by the time they get to pre-school.

While harmonious sibling relationships aren’t an impossible dream (I’d actually put my two daughters in that category if I wasn’t so afraid I’d jinx it) it doesn’t take much to throw them off track… electronic devices, playdates and chocolate chip cookies with any sort of size discrepancy can all cause dissent in the ranks.

But when you consider that your child’s relationship with his/her sibling(s) is likely, by default, to be the longest of their life, it makes sense to do what you can to promote peace, love and harmony on the home front.

As Alison Pike, Professor of Child and Family Psychology, recently pointed out on Radio Four’s One to One with Samantha Simmonds (a brilliant series on sibling rivalry if you’re interested – check it out here) bringing home a new baby is the equivalent of your husband coming home with another woman and gleefully insisting she’ll make a wonderful new addition to the family

Tough gig when you put it like that.

With that in mind and our sanity at stake we’ve scoured the internet, re-read the parenting books and asked every parent of more than one child we know how to up our chances of sibling harmony*. Go forth and create peace.

*Note: until time travel becomes a viable option, some tips are only applicable if you’re still in the planning stages. Sorry about that.

Have a big age gap
As we mentioned above, it’s tough sharing your parents with a new baby when you’re still a baby yourself. A first born who can express themselves when their younger sibling arrives on the scene is likely to have an easier time accepting the new addition.

Mother of two girls (born six years apart) Jane Henderson says: “I think the big age gap between mine is a massive help – they’re not competitive with each other and don’t have much they are required to share. It also completely removes the physical fighting possibility.”

Have a small age gap
My youngest daughter was born just two weeks before my eldest’s second birthday. They have never known life without each other and while they are not perfect – and as anecdotal as evidence like this always is – they get along really well. They like doing the same things, watching the same TV programmes and performing the same elaborate dance routines to Taylor Swift.

Mother of two boys (born 20 months apart) Paula Cardigan says: “It was tough when they were tiny but we are reaping the rewards now they’re seven and nine. They just play football in the garden together from dawn till dusk. Not sure what we’d do if they stopped liking sport, though.”

Have same sex siblings
More likely to be into the same things = peace on earth.

Have opposite sex siblings
Less competition = less to fight about.

Don’t have boys
According to Professor Pike on the One to One show special mentioned above: “Having boys is a risk factor for sibling rivalry. The more boys there are in a sibling combination the more competition you see and the more arguments. Though it’s important to know there’s always plenty of family variation. Some families have girls who fight all the time, too.”

Just have shedloads of kids
And embrace that pack mentality.

Stay Out of It
Research shows that children argue TWICE as much when parents are around. So do your best to step back and let them sort it out themselves. “If there isn’t an adult around to intervene they often just don’t bother to argue,” says Pike.

Makes the dream work, right? Reward working together (even if they’re only teaming up to sneak biscuits into their bedrooms) and ignore the bickering. Or, as mother of three Sarah Playle suggests: “Start a pasta jar! Get an empty jam jar and put a piece of dried pasta in every time they are nice to each other. It has to be a team effort NOT one per child. When it’s full they get a treat – or weirdly mine seem perfectly happy with just getting to cook and eat the pasta.”

One on one time
If I had a pound for every time one-on-one time has been recommended to me as the answer to all sibling/parenting woes ever… The theory is that if each child knows they have solo time booked in with their parents (one parent at a time is fine), they feel less need to compete for attention.

Make one child’s achievements a celebration for all. Take them out for pizza, extend bedtime, let them have a carpet picnic, bust out the iPads… if one child is a winner make them all winners.

Find and encourage engaging shared interests and hobbies. Encouraging them to share space can also work. My daughters share a bedroom and a bedtime (despite a two year age gap), which means they are united in their hatred of my 8pm rule.

For other parents, making time together a special treat works. “My daughters have their own rooms but every school holiday I pull out the guest bed in the older one’s room and they have sister sleepovers. They love it,” says Lucy Oates, mother of two.

Expand their horizons
Encourage their friendships, let them join clubs outside school and follow their individual interests. Take them places… show them the word…

Mother of two Anna Welford says: “An extreme option, perhaps, but my daughters’ relationship was completely transformed when they were stuck with each other on a six month camper van tour of America.”

Watch your own behaviour
Try not to let them hear you gossip or talk ill of others. Stand up for things that matter to you but always model kindness and respect.

Unite for a cause
Let them choose a charity to support together or team up to take charge of the family eco policy. “Our children have never got on better than when they started policing how long we all take in the shower to save water. I totally recommend an egg timer for sibling collaboration,” says Kate James, mother of three.

It’s not you, it’s them
Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do. But remember even if their personalities massively clash as children they might get on brilliantly as adults.

This too shall pass
Mother of three grown-up children Helen Mackay-Smith Mazarakis says: “Recognize that relationships go through phases and will shift for good and ill and back again.”