Dear Mr. Dad: My two children, 8 and 10, have never gotten along. They fight over the smallest things, so our house is a constant battleground. I’ve heard of sibling rivalry but this seems more serious. We’ve tried sitting them down and talking to them, time-outs, and such, but nothing ever changes. What can we do to make it stop?

A: Well, you can start by giving up on the idea that your kids are going to stop fighting. As parents, we want our children to get along, share, and love each other—it makes life so much easier (and quieter) if they do. But they won’t. As long as there have been siblings—all the way back to Cain and Abel—there has been sibling rivalry. Part of it has to do with competition.

Our society is based on performance and we generally reward people who outperform others. Do better in school, go to a better college. Sell more widgets, earn a trip to Hawaii. Win a championship, get a trophy (or at least one that’s bigger than what everyone else gets for just showing up). It’s understandable how siblings might feel that they have to compete with each other—for your attention, your praise, your love. And unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, you can’t give your kids equal amounts.

In a lot of cases, parents (and other adults or people of authority) inadvertently encourage rivalry by favoring one child over another. They probably don’t mean to but it happens anyway. Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your brother?” or “Maybe you should try another activity. Billy is a better athlete than you are”? Or perhaps you heard someone approach the sibling of a top performing child and say, “Your sister is so amazing. It must be so great to have a sister like that”?

    There’s no way to completely stop siblings from fighting. But you can help them do it less destructively:

  • Go on dates with each child, giving him or her your undivided attention.
  • Don’t play favorites and don’t compare your children. They’re different people with different needs. Pay attention to those differences and act accordingly, making each child feel special in his or her own way.
  • Understand that you’re going to fail sometimes. It takes an incredibly long time for kids to truly learn that “fair” and “the same” are two completely different things.
  • Ask your kids—one at a time—to help you understand why they’re fighting so much. Encourage as much detail as possible (comments like, “He’s not nice to me,” or “She drives me crazy,” won’t cut it). And listen carefully to their answers. If there are legitimate issues, schedule a family meeting to talk them through.
  • Establish ground rules. Arguments are okay. Physical violence and name calling are not.
  • Intervene less. Jumping in—unless it’s absolutely necessary—keeps them from learning to resolve their differences on their own. If you do have to get involved, try not to take sides. Get everyone calm and then discuss the issues.
  • Look on the bright side. As unpleasant as your children’s behavior is to be around, it may actually be good for them. By fighting with each other, they’re learning about empathy, negotiation, conflict resolution, effective and ineffective ways to handle arguments, and how to win gracefully and lose with dignity.
  • Model good behavior. If you and your wife can argue, compromise, and make up, your kids may learn to do the same.