Every once in a while, you hear other mothers say about their children “Oh, my kids get along so well, they love each other, they don’t really fight.” That’s great. But for the rest of us, we know that siblings do fight, and sometimes the fights can get ugly.

I loved motherhood for the most part, but I honestly didn’t know how to handle the constant bickering between Jane and Michelle. It used to make me so frustrated and feel inadequate as a mother. Jane and Michelle are twenty-two months apart. Jane was demanding, with a not-easy-to-handle temperament and loved to take things apart and destroyed most of them as a result, while Michelle was pleasant, passively aggressive and very careful with her possessions.

I used to buy two sets of everything to avoid conflicts but it never worked. Somehow they could find the tiniest difference between the two identical things and decided that one was better than the other. When Jane broke her new toy and started a mission to manipulate, beg or demand a trade with Michelle, a storm was bound to hit. Other times they fought over a piece of paper or who got to sit where in the car. It just went on and on.

Just like my grandma who always took a stand when my sister and I fought when we were young (most of the time she sided with me), I felt like I had to be the police and judge for my girls. My famous lines were “Jane, stop annoying your sister!” or “Jane, you are older and I expect you to take care of Michelle and act like a big sister to her!” or “Jane, how many times do I have to tell you not to take things away from Michelle by force?”

“You don’t love me! You only like Michelle!” Jane sometimes screamed at me, stomped to her room and slammed the door.
“I love you too. But I don’t like how you behave sometimes.” I yelled back at her.

On the hindsight, it was very unwise of me to meddle with the sibling rivalry. Those were precious opportunities for Jane and Michelle to learn the skills of compromise, negotiation and self-control.

If I could do it all over again, my strategy would have been very different:
1) Set up the boundary.
a. Keep one’s hands to oneself
b. Prohibition of inappropriate language usage
2) Keep my eyes and ears open during a fight, but my body at a distance. Give the girls the time and space to work things out. Only step in when a fight is escalating and self-resolution is unlikely.
3) Call time out and send the girls to their rooms if I feel I am going to lose it in the heat of the moment.
4) Even when I have to step in, the goal is still to guide them to arrive at a solution on their own.
5) Stay as objective as I possibly can. Don’t take sides unless one party breaks one or more of the clearly spelt out rules. Even in that case, only disapprove the behavior.
6) Use the point system to reward collaboration. Allocate a period of time during the day for them to practice play nice. Every 10 minutes (shorter or longer depending on the ages of the kids) they manage to play together without breaking into a fight, they get points. In this situation, either all parties will be awarded or none will. Award them double points if they can solve real life differences with the spirit of collaboration and negotiation.

If I had followed these steps back then, it would have saved a lot of agony and pain for everyone. For a while, I believed that Jane and Michelle would always be at odds with each other because they acted like they simply couldn’t stand each other.

The good news is after years of never-ending conflicts, today Jane and Michelle are best friends. When Jane came home from college this past summer, the girls were inseparable. They talked, giggled, laughed and talked more. If Michelle had boy issues or questions about colleges, they’d arrange online face time to have a lengthy discussion.

When Jake was born, Jane was thirteen and wrapped up in her own little busy world. She didn’t show much interest in her tiny little brother. That has changed too. Now Jane always ‘likes’ all the pictures of Jake I have posted on Facebook and constantly reminds me of telling him how much she misses him. She took Jake on numerous little ‘adventurous trips” during the summer break. Jane got a three-day weekend and came home last month. She drove Jake to soccer practice and the two of them went to Joyee Noodles for dinner afterwards.

Michelle babysits Jake frequently on weekends. One Saturday after Joe and I came home from a movie, I went to check on Jake in his room and found both Michelle and Jake sleeping side by side in sleeping bags on the floor. Jake had convinced his sister to have a sleep over with him.

Nothing warms my heart more than watching my children love and take care of one another. So for all the mothers out there we are convinced that your children absolutely hate each other, there is much to hope for. Examine your own role in this sibling rivalry business and very likely you’ll decide that it’s time to take a different approach. Maybe their constant bickering is an attempt to mask a real desire to be accepted and loved by you.