The Story Behind Sibling Rivalry

Updated: Apr 13


When I lived in Edinburgh I pushed my daughter's buggy to Till's bookshop- a quirky place, full of oddities- both people and books. It was near the University and a stones throw from the park. Finley loved the swings- and running about. She fell in with a little boy- and they played happily together- until Finley wheeled his yellow dumper truck with delight. The boy screeched with rage, pushed Finley and shouted. "MY DUMPER TRUCK." His mother swooped down and told him. "Douglas, you must share."

The incident passed and the children were soon running and laughing- happy as Larry, as my Dad used to say. The Mum and I chatted whilst she nursed her other child- but the recent outburst wasn't forgotten. "You can't drive my BMW," I said. "Pardon," the baffled woman replied. "I won't share my BMW with you," I said. That ended our chat- the woman thought I was odd- possibly mad- an eccentric from the bookshop.

My comment was intended to open a conversation on jealousy (I didn't own a BMW, only a bicycle)- but I mis-judged. I came on too strong- and scared her away. However, I can't blame her, jealousy is a difficult subject. Nobody wants to own up to jealousy- it's one of the scarier emotions. Unpredictable, stubborn, rageful. A very distant relation- somebody we don't want to see- but who from time to time arrives unexpectedly.

Jealousy- the ugly and estranged relation first shows up in childhood. A first born child is the centre of a parent's universe- showered in love, attention and affection. But then a baby brother or sister comes along- and that love is cut in two.

I was shocked when I first heard the story of Cain and Abel. Sat in my shorts and blazer, with my pink tie in place and thick wooly socks rolled up my ankles. My sister and I went to Church everyday at Great Walstead prep-school in Sussex. I loved the stories. I soaked them up. But this one was brutal. Cain and Abel were brothers, the children of Adam and Eve. They brought gifts to their father- Abel sheep, and Cain- fruit and vegetables. Adam preferred Abels' offering, and Cain was filled with jealousy. In a rage he murdered his brother. God asked Cain:

What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

Jealousy is at the heart of sibling rivalry and fuelled the first murder. Jealousy is dark, ancient and often hidden. We don't want to look at it- jealousy is hideous. But If we want to soften the blows of sibling rivalry then we had best listen to our own jealousy. The journey of parenthood forces us to look at ourselves, and our own challenges. We notice our habits- good and bad- and through teaching our children, end up teaching ourselves. I love this teaching story about Gandhi. Although it concerns addiction not jealousy- the principle is sound.

A mother was worried about her son's addiction to sugar. She had tried everything to make him stop, but had failed. So she came to Gandhi for advice. "Gandhi, my son consumes far too much sugar, will you please tell him it's bad for his health." Gandhi listened patiently but gave no advice, instead telling the woman to return in 2 weeks. When the woman returned Gandhi said to the boy: "Boy, you should stop eating sugar- it is not good for your health." The boy nodded and agreed that he would do his best to stop eating sugar. When the mother asked Gandhi why he had told her to go away and wait for two weeks, he replied: "two weeks ago I had an obsession with sugar, I needed that time myself to cut back myself."

So we notice our own jealousy. We think back to our own childhoods. We feel into our own sibling rivalries. At Great Walstead prep-school in Sussex children arrived with sweets- these were stored in 'tuck-boxes'. They were a great comfort- homesick children sadly sucked on rhubarb custards- rationing them out until the holidays. But I gobbled all mine up in one go! Worse than that, I crept into my sisters tuck box and stole sweets from her. Not many- a slow trickle rather than a flood. I was jealous of my sister's sweets.

By listening to our own jealousies we parents create space- in that space we can bring patience and understanding to our children's rivalries. So instead of getting cross or frustrated- instead of shouting out "YOU MUST SHARE", when we ask them to share- out of sympathetic understanding- because we truly 'get them'- we know where they're coming from- they're more likely to listen, But whatever you do, don't steal their sweets.


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