This Shabbat, Jews all over the world are reading Vayigash - a Torah portion that continues the saga of Joseph and his brothers, and the story of sibling rivalry that spiraled way, way out of control. Just to recap: Joseph is the young and favored son of our patriarch Jacob, and no, Jacob did not even try to hide his preference for Joseph. Jacob crafts the famous coat of many colors for his beloved son, and lets Joseph remain by his side while the other sons tend the flocks in neighboring towns. Nor is Joseph blameless in the rivalry among the siblings; he brings bad reports about his brothers to Jacob (today we call it being a tattletale) and regales his brothers with accounts of dreams in which Joseph emerges triumphant and glorified. It's not a great setup; and during the past weeks, the story has unfolded further: Joseph's jealous brothers throw him in a pit and sell him into Egyptian slavery, then dip his coat of many colors in animal blood and present it to their father as evidence that Joseph has been killed by a beast. But of course Joseph is not so easily disposed of; after his own trials in Egypt, he becomes second-in-command to Pharaoh - and comes to hold the power of life and death over his brothers when famine brings them to Egypt in desperate search of food.
The story reaches its climax in this week's Torah portion, as Joseph reveals himself to and forgives his brothers, and the Book of Genesis will end on a seemingly high note next week with our ancestors settled safely in Egypt. The Joseph saga might, in fact, lead us to believe sibling rivalry is really no big deal - Joseph and his brothers did reconcile, and all's well that ends well. Except, of course, that it doesn't end so well. We know what will soon happen to the Israelites who thought they were settled safely in Egypt - slavery and suffering and the slaughter of male children. And our ancient sages were quick to point out that the seeds of these horrors began with Jacob's favoritism of Joseph, and the rivalry that bloomed among the brothers.
While our own kids are (hopefully) not throwing each other into pits or selling one another into slavery, and while (hopefully) the effects of their rivalry won't end in the enslavement of an entire people, we parents still have a front-row seat to witness the damage that sibling rivalry can bring. Sometimes our kids hurt each other physically; sometimes they wreak emotional harm by exploiting their closeness to one another (only a brother or sister knows exactly what your weakest points are, and how to use them against you most effectively). And while a bit of fighting and arguing is all part of having a sibling, sometimes the rivalry becomes toxic, and threatens the essential and enduring bond between brothers and sisters.
Is there anything we as parents can do to ease the rivalry between siblings, and to ensure it doesn't spiral out of control? I think so:
Begin early. We've all been taught how to ease our firstborn's anger/sadness/disappointment when his/her baby sibling arrives - by making the older brother/sister feel special, right? We should offer a gift to our firstborn, ostensibly from the baby, and take special time to connect with our older child away from the new arrival. These are important and worthwhile steps; however, we also need to be sure we don't go overboard. While it's okay for our older children to express anger or sadness about the new baby, we should not nod unquestioningly or simply validate their emotions when they say really mean or cruel things about their new sibling. We can honor their feelings but still demonstrate our expectations for how they will treat one another: "I understand you feel really angry about baby Ava right now. A lot of kids feel that way when a new brother or sister comes, and it's okay. But I love you both very much, and it's not okay for you to say that you hate Ava or to tell me to give her away." You can also verbalize when you're balancing the needs of both your kids by telling the baby in a sweet, soothing voice: "Oh, Ava, I hear you crying because you want me to pick you up. I'll pick you up soon, but right now you have to wait because I'm getting Alex a snack. Taking care of Alex is just as important to me as taking care of you." All your baby will understand is your calming voice - but your older child will understand the words, and the sentiments behind them.
Intervene when necessary. The dictum about "letting them work it out" is fine as long as the kids are evenly matched. But when a stronger kid is beating up a weaker one, or one is not merely teasing but saying truly hurtful things to another, you need to act. If you're not 100 percent positive who started it, don't worry about assigning blame; just defuse the situation and calmly state your family rules: "Kicking your brother is not allowed. Please go play outside for awhile and work off some of your energy." "Making comments about your sister's face is not allowed. Please take some private time in your room."
Make time. With our crazy schedules and busy lives, it's an unfortunate truth that our kids may spend time together only when they're exhausted and cranky from a long day. Make family time a priority, and carve out hours to spend together when everyone's at their best. If unstructured time tends to devolve into fights, organize a project in which everyone can participate - making sandwiches to be donated to a homeless shelter, for example, or wrapping gifts for needy families - or plan an outing that allows for bonding and togetherness without keeping your kids on top of each other - a trip to a children's museum or the movies, for example, or dinner at a fondue or hibachi restaurant.
Foster support. Encourage your kids to see each other's victories and happy occasions as positive developments in their lives as well. Avoid comparing them to one another, and celebrate with equal enthusiasm the achievements that are significant to each of them. You may be more impressed with a science fair ribbon than a winning goal - but never let your kids know. If your kids feel valued for who they are, they'll come to value siblings for their unique qualities as well - and if your kids know you love them equally, they won't feel threatened by your love for the other.
Brilliant birthday idea. This is the single best idea for defusing sibling rivalry I have ever seen, and it came from my mom. I can personally attest to how much it meant to me, and how much it helped my brother and me forge a close relationship when we were small. You know how jealous one sibling gets when it's the other's birthday, and how hard it is for little kids to remember back to four months ago when they were the birthday child and the center of attention? On my brother's birthday, my mom and dad would take us both shopping - he picked out two gifts, and I picked out one. On my birthday, he would pick out one, and I would get two. My parents would also take us out to lunch or dinner, and really make a day of it. I cannot tell you how much fun this was, and how it helped us look forward to and be excited about each other's birthdays. It sounds so simple, but just try it - you will be amazed.
Wishing you and ALL your children a Shabbat of joy and peace!