The catalyst for my column this month was provided by a Member who wrote in with concerns regarding her all-boy family and their intense sibling rivalry.

I’m not sure that I can really provide any useful advice, but I can assure you that it sounds fairly typical of an all-boy family – or should I say it closely resembles the testosterone battle-zone we experience on a daily basis.

I had four sons in quick succession; I was a bit of a late starter and originally wanted six children so thought I better get cracking once I had retired from my sporting career. All the boys were delivered by caesarean section, so in hindsight I am relieved I was discouraged from further reproduction. Four kids in five years were more than I could handle.

Ironically, after our third son was born I visited a clairvoyant. I’m not usually into that sort of thing, but some friends had been and out of curiosity I went along. I told the clairvoyant that I was considering having another child and asked whether she could tell if it would be a boy or a girl.  She told me it would definitely be another son and that my father, who was deceased, was urging me to think carefully as another child would tip me over the edge. I chuckle to myself now when I reflect on that visit and they are probably chuckling too!!

Given the number of couples who are unable to have children or those who have children with disabilities, I feel very selfish but honest in saying that I would have loved a daughter. I have six brothers and no sisters and now four sons and no daughters, and since my mother passed away six years ago feel rather bereft of female company at times. When Jamie our youngest was born I remember some of the insensitive comments like “oh – another boy” and even “never mind – you’re still young enough to try again”.

When the boys were very young (in fact they were 0, 2, 3 and 4) there were days when we didn’t make it out of our pyjamas. John would arrive home from work thinking we were ready for bed – I never did admit that it wasn’t quite the case! Life was a blur where one day rolled into the next; sleep deprivation was the norm, and I often wondered if I would feel normal again.

As a parent struggling for answers to different stages of behaviour, we often feel reassured by the stereotypes that are attached, for example, to the eldest or second or third child. As their individual personalities developed I often fell into the trap of accepting their behaviour simply because they were the eldest or suffered from the dreaded third child syndrome. Unfortunately it seems these theories run out after third children!

Yes – the boys in our family fight incessantly. Within a half hour of opening their eyes in the morning they are squabbling over who is next in line for the shower, why won’t so-and-so pass the sugar, who has moved the hair gel, and so it goes on and on and on.

As they have got older the squabbles have become more physical – nothing serious to date, but certainly there have been moments when I have feared someone was going to get their blocked knocked off. I can easily determine whether the victim is genuinely hurt or crying wolf and the less you respond to the wolf the less often it occurs.

Whilst it drives me insane, having grown up in a household of males it is not completely foreign. However, I am convinced that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that they are so close in age and each and every one of them is battling for some individual attention. Sibling rivalry is much more evident in single sex families and particularly where there is a minimal age difference.

The fighting drives me insane but it is the whingeing that really wears me down and some members of our family have really mastered the art. My latest approach to this is to ignore, ignore ignore!!!!  I have learnt that entering into verbal battles achieves nothing, and I am likely to say something that later I generally regret.

Similarly, smacking doesn’t have the desired effect either, although I have tried that as well. I don’t mind admitting my failings – our kids are pretty sharp and already joke that when the “anti smacking “law comes into effect that they will be able to ring the police. I have often scratched my head at the statement “Never smack in anger” – well when else would you want to do it?!

Unashamedly, when I am at my wits’ end I just sometimes end up crying. I have to say that makes them stop in their tracks and finally they realise that their behaviour has really disappointed and upset me. Boys hate seeing their mother upset.

This all paints a picture of a very dysfunctional family – but to be honest I think a child’s home is often their haven for letting off steam. I endeavour to put myself in their shoes and understand that sometimes it must be difficult to live with the same people day after day. It’s a bit like being married – we all get a bit fed up at times and all need our space.

Our eldest son is a beautiful young man who feels the burden of being the eldest. Our second is also a beautiful young man who struggles with the pecking order. Our third is beautiful too but certainly our most demanding, and the fourth….well, he is a self contained young man who just gets on with it, knowing that as the youngest he gets away with blue murder.

By and large this behaviour generally only occurs at home, although when they were very young there were many embarrassing and awkward moments in public! Luckily, as they have got older and understand social boundaries and the difference between right and wrong, they are becoming a pleasure to take out and I am genuinely proud of them.

Last night, as I got ready to drive to Auckland in the torrential rain, they all came to hug me, urged me to drive carefully and told me how much they loved me. So special moments like that more than compensate for the rough and tumble of our daily life.

Editor’s note: Diane Levy has just written an article on Sibling Rivalry for our Parenting Section. You may also enjoy her new articles on Toddler Tantrums and Parenting Teens.

Article Sibling Rivalry written by Susan Devoy


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Dame Susan Devoy is New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner, and a World Open champion squash player. She's the former CEO of Sport Bay of Plenty and super-mum to four boys.

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