Q My twin sons are 10 years old. They bicker and battle about one third of the time they're together. Is this normal? What can I do about it?
A Actually, one third sounds a little low. My guess is that typical brothers and sisters wrangle about half the time they're within eyesight of one another.
The experts call your situation “sibling rivalry.” For me, that's too psychological.
Sibling quibbling seems the better term. It more clearly puts across what is really going on. Two or more incompletely socialized, partially mature human beings are living together and learning ever so slowly how to get along. Of course they're going to clash.
Your sons don't seem to bring out the absolute worst in each other. After all, they don't bicker about two thirds of the time. Of course, I'm assuming this is conscious time you're talking about. I doubt they bother each other when they're asleep.
At times, the baiting, teasing, arguing and free-for-all-ing that erupts when siblings get too close to each other (“too close” is defined as “on the same continent”) can get so nasty that you wonder if either feels an ounce of affection for the other. Actually, brothers and sisters can battle heavy and long and still be normal. They may sound scary, but the sibling bond can bend nearly in half before it breaks. If it's true that you always hurt the ones you love, then the mutual love of some siblings knows no bounds.
What breeds all this friction? The reasons are almost as varied as kids themselves. Sharing parents, rooms or possessions. Competing for perks, privileges and stuff. Breathing the same air. Searching for tattle-worthy crimes — serious offenses like talk-burping, looking at each other or squirting a beverage through the teeth. Perhaps most simply, some kids just consider their brother or sister a tag-along who can't wait to run to mom and tell in order to earn some brownie points.
If you wonder how much bickering is too much, ask yourself these questions: How often do the kids really fight? Are their quiet times slipping by you unnoticed? It's easy to hear only the noise and not the silence. Are they playing even as they fight? In other words, they can't live with each other but they can't live without each other. How long has the squabbling been their style? It's not unusual for siblings who were once friends to pass through stretches of weeks, months or even a few years when they don't seem to have much in common. In good families, maturity works magic. Most kids eventually realize that brother Benedict isn't a total turncoat after all.
As normal as sibling quibbling is, that doesn't mean it's right or good. Kids need to learn that brothers and sisters are as worthy of respect as anyone else. Family ties don't excuse nasty treatment. So you'll need a few ideas to teach respect — or, at least, to limit disrespect. Stay tuned to this space next month for some of those ideas.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is the father of 10, a psychologist and an author. He can be reached at www.kidbrat.com.