Saturday, November 21, 2009

Discussion: NurtureShock

Observational studies have determined that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times per hour, on average. Some of those are brief clashes, others longer, but it adds up to ten minutes of every hour spent arguing. According to Dr. Hildy Ross, at the University of Waterloo, only about one out of every eight conflicts ends in compromise or reconciliation--the other seven times, the siblings merely withdraw, usually after the older child has bullied or intimidated the younger.

In case you can't tell, I'm finding this book enlightening. I just love it when people look at objective longitudinal studies and tell us what's really making a difference.

In Chapter Six, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explore sibling relationships.

Kramer learned that sibling relationship quality is remarkably stable over the long term. Unless there ha been some major life event in the family--an illness, a death, a divorce--the character of the relationship didn't change until the eldest moved out of the house. for the most part, the tone established when they were very young, be it controlling and bossy or sweet and considerate, tended to stay that way.

Kansas Dad and I have a responsibility to help our children develop strong relationships with each other. It is not enough to simply give them more brothers and sisters; we mush show them how to be a family, how to show their love for each other and how to support each other. Now, it means taking turns being the leader in the parade. When they're grown, loving each other will mean things like planning a wedding shower in the throes of secret morning sickness and smiling the whole time. (Okay, not First Son, but I trust you can generalize.)

[I]n many sibling relationships, the rate of conflict can be high, but the fun times in the backyard and in the basement more than balance it out. This net-positive is what predicts a good relationship later in life. In contrast, siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cold and distant long term.

When the kids have free play time, I'm usually within earshot, listening as I fold laundry or wash the dishes. I tend not to interfere when I hear arguments, preferring to let them settle their own differences. As parents, though, we should be instilling in our children the skills and knowledge they need to not only resolve their differences, but to play together harmoniously more often than not. These good times are literally the foundation of their life-long relationships with each other. Brandy had a wonderful post of this very understanding recently.

The authors describe what seems to be a wonderful program at my dad's beloved University of Illinois that teaches siblings skills in four sessions that prepare them to interact with each other without resorting to fisticuffs, yelling or silent treatments (and presumably it would generalize to interactions outside the family as well), "More Fun with Sisters and Brothers."

Kramer's program is unique in the field--she doesn't attempt to teach children some kinder version of conflict mediation. Grown-ups have a hard enough time mastering those techniques--attentive listening, de-escalation, avoiding negative generalizations, offering compliments. Instead, the thrust of Kramer's program is made in its title--getting siblings to enjoy playing together.


Along the way, the children adopt a terminology for how to initiate play with their siblings, how to find activities they both like to do together, and how to gently decline when they're not interested.


In Kramer's program, fewer fights are the consequence of teaching the children the proactive skills of initiating play on terms they can both enjoy. It's conflict prevention, not conflict resolution. Parents are mere facilitators; when back at home, their job is to reinforce the rule that the kids should use their steps together to work it out, without the parent's help.

It seems to me that the program not only teaches skills useful to all relationships, but it supports the family as a whole by bolstering the relationships at its core. There's no reason parents should not use the very same skills to ensure they are responding to the needs of the children as well. (I'm reminded of this quote.)

We have some wonderful friends in Boston who modeled some of these very concepts in how they were teaching their two sons (then) to resolve conflicts: considering who he could control (himself), accepting that his brother may want to do something else, recognizing the feelings of his brother. As with everything we teach our children (especially in reaction to behaviors that are already present), helping them to develop these kinds of skills is a long-term project. It can be especially frustrating, I think, for the older children who must accept the more limited capabilities of their younger siblings. First Son, for example, may have a greater ability to control his own impulses, but he still has a difficult time understanding that First Daughter does not yet have that same control, not to mention Second Daughter who wants desperately to do whatever they are doing but does it all wrong.

Then, the chapter got more interesting. There were some research studies on educational videos and books on sibling relationships and conflict management (like Sesame Street and the Berenstain Bears). They found, objectively, what I have often believed: These books and videos make everything worse! I contacted the program coordinator of Dr. Laurie Kramer's program, Mary Lynn Fletcher, who was not only very kind, but forwarded me a copy of the article in Early Childhood Research Quarterly showing the analysis of 261 children's books. (How wonderful!) From the abstract:

Results indicated that although children's books often represent warmth and involvement between siblings, they rarely described children engaging in conflict management or relationship maintenance activities. Parents were predominantly portrayed as responding to children's conflict using controlling methods rather than techniques that might foster negotiation and problem solving.

I already have a habit of excluding (before reading to the children) books that depict negative behavior (actions or words) between siblings and friends, especially if it's behavior my kids are not yet demonstrating. As mentioned in NurtureShock, I think it very likely my young children are more likely to mimic the negative actions or words than to fully understand and implement any resolutions that do appear.

I do think such books can be useful with young children if the children are already exhibiting the behavior, the book demonstrates clearly and consistently the disadvantages of the behavior, the behavior changes by the end of the book, and reading the book is accompanied by explicit instruction or discussion between child and parent about the behavior and its consequences, including alternative ideas for ways to express feelings. (I have similar feelings on books about how monsters in the closet aren't scary. My kids didn't think there were monsters in the closet, but sometimes they do now. I usually regret it when things like this slip past me in books.)

One of the best predictors of how well two siblings get along is determined before the birth of the younger child...Instead, the predictive factor is the quality of the older child's relationship with his best friend.

Seem counter-intuitive?

It's long been assumed that siblings learn on one another, and then apply the social skills they acquire to their relationships with peers outside the family. Kramer say it's the other way around: older siblings train on their friends, and then apply what they know to their little brothers and sisters.

What stood out the most? Fantasy play. It requires children to respond to each other, to attend to the actions of the friend and communicate their own thoughts in the scenario.

Friends, you see, can leave. They can decline to play. Children learn how they must behave so that their friends will want to play again on another day. Siblings, however, aren't going anywhere. It doesn't matter how rude or bossy you are, they'll still be there in an hour or the next day. (By the way, the "social skills" developed in a preschool or day care environment weren't enough. The benefits were associated with real friendships.)

It seems that teaching our children to view each other as friends is vastly important. I think we can see this in some of the older children's literature. I wish I could think of a specific example, but I'm thinking of books like Little Women and Rainbow Valley. (Did these books actually depict sibling conflicts?) I remember reading of the childish agony of brothers and sisters who were separated by anger, even if in a silly argument, and their great desire and joy in reconciling. (I also think these types of books are probably showing a great many positive interactions for the few negative ones, and they are addressed to older children who have a more developed understanding of conflict resolution.)

Based on Chapter Six: The Sibling Effect in NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

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