Dear Mama Drama,
I recently took my 6 and 8 year old daughters to a pumpkin carving contest. It is a wonderful family event that focuses more on community than competition, but the pumpkins are judged at the end and there are winners. My 6 year old won and my 8 year old did not. At first, the 8 year old was very supportive of her sister, but then as things wound down she started crying. When we finally got to the root of the problem, it ended up that she was upset that she had given her sister ideas and that her sister had won and she didn’t.
This sibling competition expresses itself frequently in negative ways in our family and I am unsure how to react or what to do about it. Growing up most of my life as an only child (I acquired step-brothers as a pre-teen), I really don’t understand and am not very sympathetic to sibling rivalry.
How can I encourage my children to be loving supportive sisters, and how can I discourage them from being self-centered and competitive?
Dear Seeking Harmony:
Sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up with brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have that harmony you are seeking. Please know this can be just as frustrating to figure out for parents who did have siblings growing up as it is for those of you who were only children.
Spending time getting to the root of the problem, as you did, is a great start for helping your girls understand their thinking and emotions. Children need time to process what has happened and an understanding adult to walk them through it. We can often see the bigger picture, whereas they are in the middle of it and can only see what is right in front of them. Strong emotions also make it more difficult to think rationally about the situation. Giving them time to cool down will lead to more productive conversations.
The next step is to try anticipate when these situations may arise and pre-plan with your girls. For example, prior to any type of contest or competition, you could talk about the possibilities that might occur. One of them may win, both of them may win, neither of them may win. Have a conversation about how they might feel in each of those scenarios and discuss strategies for how to handle those feelings when they occur. Role playing can be very helpful as it provides the opportunity to practice the language they can use.
You may need to come up with some phrases for them such as, “I’m happy for you, sister, but I am sad that I didn’t win. I wish we could both have won.” And for the winner, “Thanks for helping me and being so supportive. You worked really hard, I wish you could have one, too.” You can tailor the statements for the specific event and circumstances, but having some generic statements that can be used in any situation can also be helpful.
The lessons of good sportsmanship can be applied in many arenas of life. It is important for children to learn both how to be compassionate and appreciative winners as well as gracious losers. The world offers many examples of both appropriate and inappropriate responses to winning and losing. When attending or watching sporting events or other competitions, make an effort to point out to your girls how different people handle themselves and how you think it is positive or negative. From the player who beats his chest after a touchdown as though he alone was responsible, the swimmer who makes sure the race doesn’t start without her competitor who is struggling with her suit, the temper tantrum a famous tennis player throws when she disagrees with a call, to the handshakes and hugs between opposing teams at the end of a hard fought game. These examples are very powerful and add a concrete and visual image to their understanding of how to be a good competitor.
Talking through your thinking about how you handle and perceive competition can be a great model for your girls as well. As you continue to increase their awareness and skills, you are cultivating their compassion for themselves and each other. Sometimes they’ll do really well and sometimes they will struggle. Acknowledge them when they handle the situations well, re-teach and problem solve with them when they don’t. This is a challenge they will face their entire lives. Teaching them these skills now is a tremendous gift you can give them.
Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.