Siblings: Who's really in charge?

The power struggle is real. Here’s what to do when a sibling tries to take charge.
Photo: Gray Benko via Instagram

Photo: Gray Benko via Instagram

It’s usually during the hectic moments—the morning rush or supper—that one of the Byers kids starts directing traffic. “You know you’re not supposed to leave your markers on the floor,” 10-year-old Justin will remind his seven-year-old brother, Nathan, or four-year-old sister, Brenna. “Boys! It’s dinnertime,” Brenna will chide back. “You’re supposed to be at the table.”

In this family of three kids, siblings routinely try their hand at being in charge, says their mom, Lori. They tell one another what to do, remind each other of the rules and critique their siblings’ work. (“That’s wrong! Why are you doing that?” Justin often remarks about others’ projects.) This kind of faux parenting is common among school-agers, says Judy Arnall, a Calgary-based parenting expert and author of the book Parenting With Patience. “They’re learning leadership, learning what works and doesn’t work when motivating other people.” After all, they get told what to do all the time—why not turn the tables? Some kids may also exert their power over siblings to earn themselves brownie points with parents. In some cases, it’s the eldest flexing his authority over younger ones; when kids gain more freedom and responsibilities, they sometimes assume the right to authority is part of the package. (When Justin started walking home from school alone, his bossiness increased, for example.)

Other times, it’s a product of personality, says Arnall. For instance, in the Byers family,  Justin and Brenna love the rules, are proud to show they know household routines and have strong personalities. Mom will often ask Justin to tie his younger sister’s shoes or get the scooters ready for the morning dash; but because of the way he’s acted in the past, his siblings will often complain. “He’s just trying to help me,” explains Byers, “but it can come across as him parenting.” Sometimes older kids become genuinely frustrated with younger siblings who move slowly or can’t read as well as they can. In other cases, a kid policing the action can actually be helpful and prevent an accident or injury.

If you’ve got a household of kids who think they are in charge, Arnall says to look at the situation objectively. “Is it a problem for the parent or is it a problem for the child who’s getting bossed around?” If it’s just that it ruffles your feathers and hasn’t turned rough or cruel between the siblings, Arnall suggests staying out of it.

Observe how siblings who are being bossed react. Some may stand up for themselves: Brenna will exclaim, “I’m a big girl—I can do it!” even when her brother is legitimately helping her as he’s been asked. But more passive children might not say anything, even if they’re bothered by it. If this is the case in your family, Arnall suggests pulling the passive child aside and asking in private if he minds the meddling. If he wants it to stop, coach him on how to speak up effectively—without yelling—by using “I” phrases, such as, “I don’t like it when you tell me to do my homework.” Getting a response helps forceful siblings understand how to lead and have others actually want to follow. “If they’re demanding and they yell, they learn they’re going to get pushback from siblings,” says Arnall. “But they learn, too, if they’re polite and appreciative, they might get
co-operation.”

To divert everyone from this power struggle, try to give your kids lots of choices and responsibilities. Most children—bosser and bossee alike—enjoy tasks like choosing what’s for dinner, selecting a birthday gift and taking charge of a corner of the garden. Let them make these decisions, says Arnall, and you will help curb your kids’ power craving. 

Expert tip:
If your kids are old enough to be left home alone, set firm rules ahead of time. Calgary-based parenting expert Judy Arnall suggests not putting your natural leader in charge, even if the kid is older, or you’ll come home to a master-slave situation. Instead, tell all kids they’re in charge of one another—and themselves, too. Set limits on the amount of screentime they’re allowed and who gets to control the device.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2015 issue with the headline, “You’re not the parent”, p. 76.

Read more:
Discipline: When siblings need different approaches
Comparing siblings can be more harmful than you thought
Sibling fighting: How to keep the peace

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