You find your kids practically coming to blows over who got more cream cheese on their bagel, and you can't help but think: There is just no way to avoid sibling rivalry. Well, if the goal is to avoid it entirely, then you might be right, says John Rosemond, author of The New! Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children (Andrews McMeel Publishing). "The only way to prevent it is to only have one child or to space kids 18 years apart," says Rosemond, with a laugh. That said, there's plenty you can do to help defuse kids' natural tendency to push one other's buttons. Want to (almost) keep the peace? Put these strategies to work in your house.
1. Behave as if you were Switzerland
Resist the urge to rush in, because "when you intervene, you're likely to identify one child as the villain and one as the victim," Rosemond explains. The obvious problem: It takes two to squabble, and you may be unfairly maligning one kid. The not-so-obvious problem: You're creating a dynamic that will quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "If that victim gets attention for being a victim, he's going to continue to elicit that villain behavior from his brother or sister," Rosemond says. Instead, let them work out squabbles themselves. The only caveat? If your younger child is 3 years old or under, or you sense either child is in physical danger, by all means play ref.
2. Don't compare siblings to one another
You probably know not to say, "Why can't you be more like your sister?" But it's a common mistake to compare kids in even more subtle ways (e.g. "Julie, look at how nicely your brother is playing with those puzzles"). It's fine to praise one child's unique skills, says Rosemond. Just make sure you don't have a hidden agenda -- like getting Julie to stop hurling puzzle pieces across the room.
3. Be a super model
You and your spouse provide a powerful example of how two family members should speak to each other. "If the kids see you arguing and calling each other names, it's hard to get across the message: We don't do that in this family," points out Rosemond. So play nice with your sweetie, and who knows? You just might hear less bickering from the playroom.
4. Give each kid space
You know the famous line by Robert Frost about how fences make good neighbors? Well, imaginary lines (in the car, in a shared bedroom, and so on) make good siblings. To avoid turf wars, "the ideal situation is for each child to have his own clearly-defined space," stresses Rosemond. If you can't spare a bedroom, give each child his own desk or toy chest in their communal space. Rosemond says that doing this will give each child "a sense that this territory is mine."
5. Don't insist on shared play dates
Sure, it would be easy if your 7-year-old could take your 4-year-old under her wing whenever she has a pal over. But asking older kids to always include younger ones on play dates and fun outings creates serious resentment on the part of the older child (and risks embarrassment in front of friends). Plus, there's another reason to steer clear of making the older child the de facto babysitter: Having private friend time means the older child is more likely to play nicely with the younger one when no peers are around. And to keep the left-out child content, plan a fun alternate activity, or give the greatest treat of all: one-on-one time with you
Lisa Lombardi is a writer and editor based in Larchmont, New York. She is a mother of one, with one on the way.