Sibling Rivalry Print
Childer: On Child-Rearing
Written by Douglas Wilson   

20-1_childer01Rivalry between children is easy to see and lament, but the mainspring that makes the rivalry work is somewhat more difficult to identify. The sin that creates this rivalry is the sin of envy, but envy is the kind of sin that hides or cam­ouflages itself quite effectively. It does worried parents no good to know that “envy is in there somewhere.”

Rene Girard has identified the mechanism of this rivalry very ably, and as parents use his insights to study what is going on they will have a better grasp of what makes their kids tick—not to mention everybody else they know. Simple desire is a function of wanting something for its own sake. A straightforward example would be a thirsty man who wants a drink of water. This desire is built-in by God, and no one has to teach it, or model it. Newborn babies want milk, crying for it, and when they are first born they are not competing with anyone for it. The competition comes later—and sooner than you might think.

Triangular desire complicates things quickly. In trian­gular desire you have the subject who wants something, the object that is wanted, and a model who bestows desirability on the object by wanting it first. The subject wants the same object that the model wants, but what he really wants is to be like the model. This is the key to understanding all sibling rivalry. The older brother wants a bike, and so younger brother wants a bike too. But what the younger brother really wants is to be like his older brother, and the bike is just the necessary prop. The bike is just there to confuse the parents.

Some might think this is far too simplistic because, they say, “when we bought the younger brother a bike also, it didn’t help. The conflict just got worse.” This is because the desire goes deep, well past bike level. What the younger brother really wants is what the older brother got, which was not simply a bike, but “a bike first, from dad, to his beloved first born son.” And you can’t fix that by buying a second bike. The problem is underscored by the insulting fact of the second bike. It is not resolved at all.

Another way of putting this is that not all desires are for physical objects. Children who compete over objects are frequently doing so because of the symbolic value those objects have—they represent honor or love or status in the family. And this is why competition can turn vicious when the stakes are so low—because the stakes are not re­ally the stakes.

This can even get more complicated. A model (I almost wrote model child, which is another complicating factor) can desire something in a lackluster fashion—if he were the only kid, he could take or leave the bike. But when his brother comes after him fiercely for it, he recognizes its deep value and clutches it far more tenaciously than he did before. In other words, a reciprocal triangular desire can develop. The younger child wants something because the older child wanted it first, and the older child starts to want it deeply because the younger child wanted it deeply first. They are jostling together, each of them deriving the strength of their desire from the strength of the other’s desire. And of course, if it were just the bike, one of them could resolve the conflict by just letting go.

But it is not just the bike. In the scenario sketched out above, the older brother has the bike as the first-born son, and the bike symbolizes that status—a placement which cannot be undone, and that is why the younger brother wants it so much. And if the older brother determined that he was going to be Joe Godly in the conflict and give up the bike for the sake of his brother, that is just the kind of thing that an older brother would do, and now the younger brother wants to be like that.

I have been using the example of older brother/younger brother because it is a very common problem for parents. But the dynamics involved in this can function in any number of situations. The same thing can happen (only nastier) when the younger brother has more confidence, more gifts, and is clearly enjoying God’s favor. The biblical examples of Joseph and David some to mind.

In order to do something about this, parents should recognize that the competition is really over the children’s relationship with them. And there are two aspects of the parents’ prayers, discipline, and instruction. The first is to discipline for the outbursts of envy, and the second is to discipline in an undistracted way—not to be confused by “the bike,” of whatever the conflict was over. In the context of this discipline, the instruction (and attitudinal example) coming from the parents has to show that their parental favor is given freely, and cannot be wrested away by competition.

This is not done by warning the kids that envious competition incurs a fundamental relational disfavor—that will just make things worse. Without repentance, the child knows that he is running a deficit, and he will do the only thing he knows how to do to get out of it . . . which is more competition. Any attention is better than no attention.



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