Parenting Podcast: Sibling Rivalry

Parenting Podcast by Wendy Grinberg, RJE

In this week’s Jewish Parenting Podcast, Alfie Kohn talks about sibling rivalry as “a problem to be solved, not a fact of life.” He explains how we often inadvertently encourage rivalry when it suits our purposes (“Who can get their pajamas on the fastest?”) and then fail to involve our kids in coming up with solutions to problems. He then points out another problem with the system of rewards and punishments which relies on parental control– it fails to teach children how to work things out.

Let’s take a look at the classic Jewish story of sibling rivalry, Cain and Abel. When Cain brings an offering to God, so does Abel. Many people point out that Abel’s was from “the choicest” of his flock, but the Torah gives no explanation for God’s preference. As Gunther Plaut explains, “God’s rejection of Cain’s offering is inexplicable in human terms. God acts in accordance with divine wisdom…” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary Rev. Ed., p. 40) When Cain shows his disappointment and anger, God chastises him. After stewing on this, Cain kills his brother, and when God asks him what happened, Cain answers, “How should I know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)

In my house, I can see this scenario being replicated this way: I tell my 3 year old to eat his food nicely and not play with it. I spend most of the meal scolding him. At the same time, I coo at my 1 year old while she throws food off of her high chair. I tell the older child that he should know better. After dinner, the baby tries to play with the 3 year old’s toy, and he bonks her on the head with it. When I ask him what happened, he says, “I don’t know.”

Kohn’s point is that these incidents aren’t inconsequential. They are an opportunity to either work together to solve problems or let rivalry fester. Indeed, we must all be each other’s keepers, or we live in a world of violence and apathy. So, let’s be problem solvers. How would you rewrite the scenario or the follow-up?

Hear more of Alfie Kohn’s suggestions on how to respond to our kids in this week’s podcast.

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Wendy Grinberg, RJE is a URJ Parenting Specialist.

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