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Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Vayeishev- When Siblings Fight

Dec 14, 2022

Parenting from the Parsha- Parshat Vayeishev- When Siblings Fight

Rav Yossi Goldin

Our parsha opens with a description of the challenging dynamics within Yaacov’s family, expressed in Yosef’s complicated relationship with his siblings. Yaacov’s favoritism towards Yosef caused the other brothers to harbor hatred towards their younger brother- a hatred that was further exacerbated by Yosef’s two dreams, each one symbolizing Yosef’s dominance over his siblings.  The Torah relates how Yosef’s dreams generated tremendous anger and jealousy among the brothers, causing even Yaacov to intervene and criticize Yosef for his obsession with the dreams. The Torah ends this part of the story with the following statement- “and his [Yosef’s] brothers were jealous of him, and his father kept the matter in mind.”

While the meforshim debate the precise translation and proper interpretation of the end of this passuk- the simple understanding of the text seems to be that Yaacov watched the infighting among the brothers from a distance- paying attention to the goings while perhaps debating internally whether to intercede directly or not.  After intervening a bit by challenging Yosef’s interpretation of the dreams, Yaacov continued to monitor the situation to determine whether he should get even more involved.

In this way, Yaacov’s dilemma is similar to one that we as parents often face- how to respond when our children fight. Of course, in the story of Yaacov Avinu and his sons, the intensity and the stakes were much higher than the infighting that we tend to face. At the same time, the fundamental issue remains the same- when our children fight, when is it appropriate for us as parents to intervene, and when is it proper to let them work out the issues themselves?

The issue of sibling rivalry and tension arises from the very moment that a second child is born. Together with the excitement and anticipation that the older sibling may feel with the birth of a younger brother or sister, inevitably tension arises within, either consciously or unconsciously. Whereas  until this point, the older child had the complete attention and devotion of both parents, now the child must share the parents’ attention and devotion with his new sibling- not to mention all the other toys and gadgets in the house as well. 

And as the siblings grow up together, further tension and fighting tends to naturally develop- sometimes due to competing needs and wants, other times over specific objects or parents love and attention, and yet other times simply because the siblings’ familiarity with each other breeds annoyance and irritation. As long as the children are still young, the fighting may manifest itself in one way, while as they get older, the conflict may intensify and express itself differently. Of course, much of this will also depend on the personalities and temperament of the children at hand.

Most parents, when beginning a family, dream of their children being best friends. Yet the reality often tends to be different. Unfortunately, we view this as a failure on our part as parents, and come to believe sibling conflict is a reflection on our parenting abilities. However, this mindset is often misguided. Undoubtedly, there are strategies that parents can employ to try and mitigate conflict between siblings, and the avira that the parents set in the home can play a role in sibling discord  just as Yaacov’s favoritism towards Yosef fuels their animosity towards Yosef. However, our parenting is far from the only factor. So many factors beyond our control play a role in how siblings relate to each other- the personalities and temperament of the children, their gender, other siblings, the impact of their peers and friends, etc.

Once such conflict does arrive, the question then because whether we, as parents, should intervene- and if we should, how we should do so. Our initial reaction- because it’s hard to see our children fight- may be to try and lessen the tension/fighting by mediating between the two sides. However, that might not always be the correct response- and it is important that we allow our children to gain the skills to deal with conflict themselves as part of the growth and maturation process. But how can we know when it’s appropriate to intervene, and when it’s better not to?

In their Book Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish discuss in detail the role of a parent in conflicts between siblings. They present a few different scenarios, and make suggestions as to how and when to intervene.

One scenario, which typically takes place amongst younger kids, is when the children are arguing, and there is no danger of someone getting hurt. In this case, the ideal is for the children to resolve the conflict themselves. Allowing them to do so will build skills and make both sides feel comfortable with the resolution. If due to age or other factors, the children need to be taught how to resolve the conflict, then parent should do the following:

1)      Acknowledge the anger and frustration that each side feels towards the other

2)      Validate both sides of the issue- and show appreciation for the challenge in resolving the issue

3)      Express faith in the childrens’ ability to find a mutually agreeable solution

4)      Leave the room

A crucial aspect in our approach to such conflicts is maintaining impartiality and ensuring that both sides feel heard and validated. Most often, being partial to one side, even when we are confident that one side if more correct, creates more tension between the siblings.

The second scenario is when there is the potential for physical harm to one or both of the children. In this situation, as responsible adults we must step in and immediately stop fighting. Faber and Mazlish suggest that under such circumstances, we should take the following steps:

1)      Interrupt the fighting and describe what you see- explain why the situation is dangerous

2)      Separate the children

3)      Allow each child to share their perspective of the situation with you

4)      After an appropriate cooling off period, allow them to try and resolve the conflict

And finally, a third scenario arises when the children are simply unable to resolve a conflict, despite parental attempts to teach them how to do so. In this case, the parent may need to bring the two parties together and mediate between them directly. In these cases, however, the goal should be to allow each side to understand the perspective of the other, to “hear” the other. By doing so, we might even enable the two sides to come to a resolution themselves.

Ultimately, Faber and Mazlish suggest, the role of a parent is play as minimal a role as possible- but when necessary, to “step in so that we can step out”, to intervene as necessary to help our children resolve the issues themselves.

Sometimes, of course, despite our best efforts, there may be conflict that simply cannot be resolved. Particularly when dealing with arguments and conflict that arise between adult siblings, or in situations of family tragedy, emotions may run high, and lines may be drawn. In those situations, our job as parents is realize our limitations, and understand that we can only do so much. We must try to support both sides, attempt to mediate between the two sides- and then daven to Hashem that he should give us the wisdom to bring the sides back together.

In this week’s parsha, we witness the worst of what can happen when siblings fight. As parents, sibling conflict is an extremely challenging and stressful area. We must do our best to be thoughtful as to when, and how, we involve ourselves in such conflict- while realizing that at the end of the day, reaching a resolution is not only up to us.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!



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