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Mendo Lake Family Life

Manage Sibling Rivalry Like a Farm Girl

By Camilla Gray-Nelson

Your kids are home from school for the summer. Can sibling rivalry be far behind? Research shows that about one in three kids with a sibling have been targeted with some sort of physical or verbal abuse, and perceived differences in parental favor is often identified as the cause. Serious sibling rivalry can verge on bullying, and additional research indicates that kids who have been routinely put down tend to feel more anxious, suffer in school, and adapt less easily to social situations than kids who are not.

I am an animal behavior expert who, for more than 30 years, has worked with the human animal, helping bring clarity to human behaviors that may defy logic but could have a deeper, instinctive core. Rivalry between siblings is as old as the biblical story of Cain and Abel because rivalry is one of our hard-wired human instincts (think caveman competition and survival). Since we cannot eliminate the instincts that drive us, the question, then, is this: How can a parent navigate rivalry and maintain a more peaceful, healthier home environment? 

The solution may not be obvious to the logical mind, but it’s one that makes complete sense if parents can look more deeply at rivalry’s instinctual causes. 

Living on a farm, rivalry between animals is commonplace as they compete for limited resources. The horses or cows will compete for the hay, the dogs will compete for a bone, and so forth. Our domesticated animals will also compete for my attention and approval. It’s not such a stretch to see that rivalry between children in a family could have more to do with their Inner Animal competing for a most important resource—a parent’s attention and approval—than the children simply being mean or unkind. This at least helps us begin to understand sibling rivalry, but it doesn’t get us to a point of controlling or stopping it. This is where we can look to another, more human instinct for inspiration: the Desire to be Great or Important, which both Sigmund Freud and John Dewey identified near the turn of the 20th century. 

As every parent knows, even though kids may share similar DNA, that doesn’t mean they share the same traits. Each has their individual personality, talents, interests, and skills. And, when it comes to preventing sibling rivalry, this can be a very good thing. Here’s why.

When most social mammals are treated exactly the same, they predictably compete to be different. That’s because the hierarchy that sustains them requires distinctiveness. Each member needs to be a little different from the other so that no two compete for the same position. Children’s Inner Animals also do this: They strive to find their unique place in the family pack as they compete for parental pride and approval. 

So to reduce competition and rivalry, recognize children’s differences. Instead of holding them up to the same standard of accomplishment, diversify your sources of pride and approval. It’s easy to be proud of scholastic achievement and athletic ability. But what about artistic talent? Creativity? Innovation? Those tattoos on your daughter that give you such grief could actually be beautiful expressions of art, if you change your perspective. They might even be worth a compliment. 

Brag about your artist. Talk about your poet or musician and let them pursue those talents during school break. Encourage your creative writer to pen their first book this summer. This approach could well reduce sibling rivalry and go a long way toward building lifelong pride and self-confidence in your kids.

Understanding your kids’ Inner Animal can help you effectively address competition over the coveted resource of parental approval. By diversifying your criteria for accomplishment and pride, you will be better able to satisfy each child’s need to feel special and important. 

Mother Nature would approve. 

Camilla Gray-Nelson is the author of Harvest Your Happy: A Farm Girl’s Guide to Leading, Succeeding and Living Your Best Life. She is founder and president of Dairydell Canine, a luxury dog boarding and training facility on her ranch in Petaluma, California. Camilla is also founder of Farm Girls Lead, where she lectures and writes on leadership and success skills for women. For more information, visit