Popular Parenting Myths No. 6: Let Kids Work Out Their Differences Themselves
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

Parenting advice has to make sense to be worth considering – but it has to have a lot more to it than that. In the 25 years that I’ve been a parenting psychologist guiding parents with typical childrearing issues, I’ve seen some advice elevated to an absolute belief – never examined, just accepted as truth.

Parents are finding that some of these beliefs need to be held up to the light, because the results don’t live up to the promises. Some myths need to be updated and corrected to help parents do the thoughtful, wise, validated childrearing job they’re trying to.

The advice “Let kids work out their differences themselves” is commonly given to parents.At one level, parents may be lulled by this advice, since it absolves them from closely supervising their children's play with siblings and friends, and from the unpleasant task of intervening in conflicts. Yet parents are uncomfortable letting kids have full freedom to be thoughtless, unkind and even hurtful to each other, and doing nothing to correct it.

 The reason this advice is a myth is because when young children are not equal in age, capability, size, personality, and/or strength, it's not reasonable to assume they can work out their differences without adult help.  Too often, when parents believe kids should work it out themselves, one child or the other will feel overwhelmed, unsupported, unhappy or angry, and that life isn't fair. Let's talk about peer play first, then sibling play. When our children play with peers, we should be supervising closely enough to see what they're saying and doing to each other. Young preschoolers, for example, need lots of help in sharing and taking turns. Older preschoolers need parents' help to make sure both kids get their way some of the time. And with preschoolers and young elementary school children, parents need to be sure they're not being mean or  leading each other into misbehavior. Parents should correct kids  (yours and their friends) right on the spot and then have them practice better behavior with each other. Even when the children seem to be playing well with each other, we should check in every 15 minutes or so – listen first and then make your presence known. Makes sure the visiting child knows you're available to help.

With siblings, the dynamics are different, and it's even more upsetting to see one of our children hurting the other. Although our children are different in age and capability unless they're twins, they live together, so we can't supervise them every waking minute. In addition, most younger sibs are so interested in the attention and action of the older ones that they can't stay away even when the older one does every mean thing he can think of to the younger. However, since siblings are even more unequal than peers, they need us to help them a lot in the early years – usually until the youngest is around four years old.

How we intervene varies with the stages.  With a younger child who is getting into the older sib's things, we have to find ways for us and the older sib to redirect the younger, and for the older one to have a way to get a breather from all the intrusion. Sometimes, a brief timeout for the younger can feel like a good idea to the older, so he doesn't think he's the only one who is always blamed and punished.  If the older one is taunting and/or hurting the toddler, there needs to be a part of the day when you keep the toddler engaged. When the  sibling relations are very stressed, the older sib also needs help with his feelings, and some assistance learning to do something with the toddler sibling – some game or activity that will make them both laugh, even if only briefly. As the younger becomes a preschooler, the sibs can usually find more moments of joy in their shared play. But because the younger can't play at the same level as the older sib, intervene before it goes badly and help one or both do some activity with you. These are just some suggested ways to help your children develop their social skills with our intervention and teaching. Pay attention, especially with sibs, to make sure that they don't spend years with one inflicting real emotional harm on the other.  Young children need help in learning to socialize well with each other. They often can't work it out on their own.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015