Parents, relax! Why you should be happy your kids argue...
Joe O'Shea on the study that promotes childhood squabbles
Published 19/07/2011 | 05:00
Parents with squabbling children should let them row to their hearts' content -- it could be the secret to their future success.
New research suggests that strong sibling rivalry, while hardly contributing to a quiet family home, can boost mental and emotional development in children and fast-track them towards maturity.
And a study by the University of Cambridge's Centre for Family Research has found that children who squabble and compete with their brothers and sisters are more likely to develop the keen social skills and dispute-resolving techniques that will benefit them later when they go into the workplace.
The major new study into child development argues that children who grow up in a competitive, combative (within reason, of course) environment tend to take the lessons they learn about standing up for themselves and the art of give-and-take into their later lives.
And parents should not fret too much if the intensity of sibling squabbles increase as children move towards their teens, as long as their verbal sophistication also increases and, once the anger passes, their kids learn to resolve their differences in as fair a way as possible.
The five-year study at the University of Cambridge found that it was also important that sibling rows are resolved without one child (usually the youngest) always having to give way to another.
In families where even the youngest child occasionally bucks the sibling order and gets their way, the social skills of all the children are enhanced.
"The more combative siblings are, and the more they argue and the older child puts the younger one down, the more they are learning complex lessons about communication and the subtleties of language," says Dr Claire Hughes author of a new book, Social Understanding and Social Lives, which is based on the research.
The study looked at children's cognitive and social development between the ages of two and six.
"The more the children upset each other, the more they learn about regulating their emotions and how they can affect the emotions of others," says Dr Hughes.
"The more they point-score, the more it can motivate them to achieve."
The research did point to dangers in heightened sibling rivalry.
"If sibling rivalry gets out of hand, it can be very negative. Persistent violence is a strong predictor that the aggressive child will bully their peers," says Dr Hughes.
"I don't want to be the woman who says it's good if your children hate each other, but parents might take some sort of comfort, when their children are fighting, in the discovery that they are learning valuable social skills and intelligence which they will take outside the home."
Other researchers broadly agree with the findings of this latest study into childhood development and sibling rivalry.
Judy Dunn, professor of development psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, says that although "it may not feel like it, sibling rivalry can be constructive, preparing them for important relationships when they are older".
And Dr Tina Kretschmer, her King's College colleague and co-author of Siblings -- Friends or Foes?, says parents should not try to stifle their children's rivalry.
"It's a natural part of sibling relationships and it has its good sides: it can motivate them to choose different niches in which to excel," she said.
The current advice from the experts for parents is to always avoid taking sides and try to remain calm, even as their children raise hell with each other. Which is, of course, easier said than done.
We asked some well-known figures to share their own experiences of sibling rivalry.
RTÉ Radio 1 Broadcaster
The popular morning radio host is the second youngest of six children, with one brother and four sisters.
And John admits to having a fairly rambunctious relationship with all of his siblings, especially his older brother Dermot.
"I think we had the typical brotherly-love kind of relationship when we were kids, we were always rolling around on the path outside the house bashing each other," says John.
"As far as I can remember, he usually won."
"We had a big family and there was a fair bit of scrapping but I do think it taught us to stand up for ourselves and fight our corner.
"I think it made us all more sociable as well, you have to get on with each other and the rows were pretty quickly forgotten. I can see how those lessons would help you in later life".
John, the father of two children himself, spent two years living in China in the early noughties with his wife Miriam Donohoe, a foreign correspondent based in Beijing.
And he says he saw the impact of China's 'One Child' policy on families there.
"In China they call those kids the Little Emperors and they have all the physical and emotional manifestations of being spoilt.
"The Chinese are worried about the isolation of only-children and actually try to create a bigger family environment by bringing cousins together as much as possible. We would see them out having big family meals, encouraging the kids to play together".
Growing up on Inis Mór in the Aran Islands, Maura says she had a very close relationship with her four sisters.
"It's a small place so you spend a lot of time hanging out with your family," she says.
"We were four girls, very close in age and sometimes we absolutely killed each other. The usual things, clothes and make-up.
We didn't have loads of money so the rows were usually about small things, who was going to get the one bike we had, that sort of thing.
"But I don't think we were that competitive when it came to careers -- two of my sisters went to art college, I went into journalism -- we all kind of went our own way."
"We were very close and I think that bond helped us. We learned to depend on each other but we would never hold our tongues so that did teach us to speak up for ourselves, you had to when everybody was talking all the time".
Maura believes the closeness of her family and the relatively small community of the Aran Islands encouraged herself and her sisters to mature quickly.
"You were more able to join in adult conversations, they being the only kind at times.
"I think that kind of background has helped us in our lives and what we do now".
Today FM Presenter
Ballina-born radio personality Ray Foley has one younger brother, Morgan and admits that they had the traditional Irish approach to growing up as brothers.
"We basically spent every waking moment killing each other, which is the way most brothers are when they are growing up, I suppose," says Ray.
"We do get on great now, we see each other all of the time, I think the main reason we gave each other such a hard time back then was that I was the older boy and I didn't like him coming along and spoiling the good thing I had going for myself".
Ray would agree with the theory that siblings who scrap and compete with each other tend to learn some important early lessons about handling relationships and disputes.
"The only time we were united was when our parents stepped in to sort things out, so you learn how to team up and work with each other.
"And I think we both turned out to be pretty good with people, my brother much more so than me actually. He's a teacher and he is very sociable, very good with people".
Ray also believes that no matter how fraught the relationship between siblings, they always look to protect each other outside the home.
"That was me as an older brother, it was always a case of, 'I can slag him off as much as I want, but don't you dare say or do anything to my little brother'."