"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 21, 2012
Sibling Rivalry
by Emily S. Jorgensen

Little did my father know that his fateful words would forever go down in history that Sunday afternoon.

He was sitting at the head of the table, perusing the Sunday paper, chatting informally with his three daughters: myself seated at the piano, my younger sister reading a book nearby, and our third sister also in earshot.

I don’t remember how we got to The Comparative Declaration. But, at some point, my father pointed out what he thought of as our individual strengths. I know his intention was positive. I also know as a parent myself how I tend to compare and contrast my own children, so I can appreciate his thinking now.

However, when he said he thought of me as Talented, and my next younger sister as Smart, and our third sister as Pretty, what I heard was that I was Not Smart Or Pretty; my next younger sister heard she was Not Talented Or Pretty, and our third sister heard she was Not Talented Or Smart.

Of course this conversation had the completely opposite effect my father intended. Rather than helping us feel validated in our strengths, we felt insecure, wondering about our weaknesses.

My dad is a great guy, and has apologized profusely for this conversation — I don’t think any of us hold any grudges. But, we have talked about this conversation many times in our adulthood, because it summed up the core issues of our sibling rivalry.

Is sibling rivalry unavoidable?

I am not sure; but, I think it can be mitigated by careful parenting.

There are a surprising number of instances of sibling relationships in the scriptures: Cain and Abel, the twelve sons of Israel, Moses and his older brother and sister, as well as his adoptive brother Ramses, and the sons of Mosiah, to name a few.

The Book of Mormon opens with a story of siblings — Lehi’s children. It also closes with a story of siblings — Jared and his brother.

It has always mystified me a bit why Laman and Lemuel would be that mean to Nephi. I mean, sure, he was younger and favored of God, and maybe that meant he got a bit cocky at times. But, really, they tried to kill him more than once! That’s even worse than Joseph’s older brothers selling him into slavery.

At some point, Laman and Lemuel took an “us versus you” approach to their relationship with their younger brother. We have no idea when this started — perhaps it was early childhood, perhaps a comparison by a parent or a perceived slight. They grew to see their brother as the enemy.

As time went on, the children of Lehi grew into two mighty peoples that hated each other for centuries.

Contrast this with Jared and his brother. It seems apparent, though it does not exactly say so in the scriptures, that Jared was the older brother. The people seemed to look to him for guidance, and most directives came from him. Also, when his people asked for a king to be set over them, it was Jared who decided to allow it.

Yet, although Jared was the oldest and the leadership role naturally fell to him, he recognized that it was his brother who had the special relationship with God, and so Jared would constantly rely on the counsel his brother would bring back from God.

Jared and his brother governed as a team; they seemed to allow each other to play to their strengths. Jared had the big ideas and the foresight to protect his people and plan for their future; he looked to his brother to obtain instructions from God on how to do this.

Together, they created a cohesive society.

How can we help foster in our children the type of relationship Jared and his brother had, rather than the type Nephi had with his brothers? As I have pondered this question, I have come up with a few ideas.

First, we should never, ever, ever compare. I know, it is nearly impossible not to do this in our heads. But we should never give voice to these analyses.

Second, we must maintain a zero tolerance policy for any and all aggression, manipulation, bullying, and bossiness. This doesn’t happen by magic. Families must set clear guidelines and consequences for these unchristian behaviors.

Also, we can actively seek for ways to have our children work together. It can be assembly line cupcakes, or raking up the leaves together. These types of activities may look picture perfect in The Friend, but in reality there are many opportunities for friction here. Let those be an opportunity to teach patience, tolerance, and respect for those younger or less able.

When complimenting one child, do so with the help of another. Rather than saying “that is a pretty drawing” to one child in front of another child, turn to the other child and say, “Wow! Look at this drawing your sister did. Isn’t it pretty?” Invite children to complement each other frequently and see the good in each other. Nurture a culture of mutual support in your family.

When disciplining, point out to the “picker” how the “pickee” feels — rather than, “you hit your brother, so you are on time out,” a parent can say, “do you see that your brother is crying? That is because you hit him. Please take a time out and think about how you can help your brother feel better.”

Be careful that you do not put too much responsibility on the oldest child. She or he is still one of the children — not a second or third parent. Let her be a child; making her responsible for her siblings beyond what is reasonable is one of the surest ways I have seen to make her resent her younger siblings and the relative freedom they have in comparison.

And lastly, strive to have a home where the Holy Ghost may dwell. Carefully scrutinize the entertainment, language, tone of voice, and teasing that goes on in your home. When the Spirit of God is present, children are more likely to feel safe and loved — it is kind of a chicken-and-the-egg thing. When children feel safe and loved, they are more likely to act in a way that keeps the Spirit in the home.

As parents we cannot control everything our children do and say to each other, but we can model the unconditional love they will need if their relationships with each other are to be healthy into adulthood.

Jared and his brother remained true friends their entire lives, working together for the benefit of their people even in their old age. What an incredible gift it would be to give our children that kind of friendship in their siblings.

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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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