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Who’s on First? Giving Kids Their Fair Share of Attention

​It is normal for siblings to compete for their parents’ attention and time. Unfortunately, children may use inappropriate behaviors like whining, tattling, fighting and arguing to belittle or “one-up” their brother or sister. When it comes to a parent’s attention and time, kids want to know, “Who’s on first?”

Many parents have shared with me, in our Common Sense Parenting classes, their feelings of concern about sibling rivalry. Parents worry when the new baby has arrived that the older sibling feels left out even though mom and dad try to make him or her feel included. Other parents with school-age children say they get frustrated by their children’s constant battling and bickering over the very thing they are willing to freely give -- their love. Most parents admit there is a limit of the time and attention they can give children each day and this is where things get complicated.

Parents ask:

How much time should I give to each child? Every child is different, some kids will just want a little of your time while others want to be around you every moment. Spending more time isn’t necessarily better. It’s what you do with the time that counts. You could spend 5-minutes, one-on-one with a child doing something he likes and it would mean more than an hour with him doing something in a group. In this case, quality and quantity can work together. Having short but exclusive time with your kids may make him feel like he is special to you.

What should parents do when they have a child who is an attention hog? Children who crave attention are telling us two things; 1) they like being around us and 2) they are willing to do anything to get the time and attention they want. As parents we want to make sure that we only give attention for good behavior. When our little attention hog is doing something irritating, completely ignoring him could stop the problem. However, if your child is doing something harmful or repeatedly breaking a rule calmly, immediately and swiftly correct him with little fanfare as possible.

How can parents avoid feeling overwhelmed when they have more than one child? You can try to make short 5-minute dates with each child every other hour during the times children have the most difficulty getting along. Do simple things like five minute dates for younger children: pushing child on the swing; help rake the leaves, rock in a chair. For older kids a mini date might be a soda after school, five minute computer game or bedside chat. Be sure to make the date for only one child at a time. Use a timer to keep track of the date, when it should start and finish. Remind your child another special date will be coming up. Also remind kids they lose date time when they bicker or interrupt another child’s date.

Of course, I am not able to answer every question you have on giving children your attention and spending time with them but, here are five quick tips to lessen problem behaviors between siblings so you will want to spend more time with your children.

  1. Daily Routines: Simple and consistent routines give children a sense of stability, safety and identity especially when some things has changed in the home like getting a new brother or sister. Also, having a schedule reduces idle time when kids often get into trouble. Prompt your kids using a timer of what is coming up on the schedule so they can quickly transition.
  2. Daily Responsibilities: Help your children feel like they are part of the family by giving them a household responsibility. The responsibility could be something small for a young child such dust busting the sofa or being on towel patrol in the bathroom. While older kids can help you with various household chores. Giving kids responsibilities around the house will free you up to have more time to spend with them. Spending time doing fun things together should be a main motivation for you and your children when it comes to ge​tting chores done.
  3. Use Rewards: Make getting along with sibling worth your child’s effort. Use the things she likes to do as rewards. These should be things that don’t cost money and can be done in a short period of time. Ask your children to help you make their own personal reward list (draw or write it out). Each time you catch them getting along use praise and/or a reward to encourage them.
  4. Use Punishment: A simple and affect negative consequence for a child who does an unkind or disrespectful behavior toward their sibling is to have him do several kind and/or considerate things for their sibling. For example, if a child hits their little brother because he stuck out his tongue at him you could have both children do three considerate (give up snack or date time with each other) or cooperative things (work to pick up toys, fold a load of laundry together) for each other as away to show they can get along.
  5. Enlist Help: Partners can take turns at different times of the day being with their children. Allowing the other person time to regroup away from the children may help them feel more refreshed and capable. If there isn’t a co-parent to call on in the home enlist extend family and good friends to give you a break. Also, make a rule for kids, not interrupt mom or dad‘s 30 minute alone time. Reward the kids when they respect the rule. This rule is especially helpful when you first get home after work. Children may start vying for your attention right at the door.

With all of this in mind, remember it is normal for siblings to compete for their parents’ attentions and time. However, now you have some strategies to use when your children use inappropriate behaviors to get your attention. Here are a few more resources that will help:

Need parenting tips? Call the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000.

Find parenting books at the Boys Town Press.

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