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Easing Sibling Rivalry with the "In Charge" System

by Blakely Bundy, M.Ed

“That’s not FAIR!” complained the four-year-old. “I NEVER get to play with that doll,” yelled her twin sister. “I want to read THIS book.” “She ALWAYS gets to go first.” Familiar sounds in my daughter’s household soon after the birth of her third child last spring. Her twin daughters were revving up the complaints, fights, and tears and she wondered how she could possibly handle it, especially with a new baby to care for, too. But those sounds were very familiar to me, the mother of four children, a former preschool teacher, and a lifelong early childhood professional, and I had a solution to recommend—namely, the “in charge” system.

While this system had brought peace to my household as my own children grew up, I couldn’t claim credit for inventing it, as my brother and I had used it growing up in the 50’s and 60’s and, back then, we had borrowed the idea from my best friend’s family, which had successfully used it to keep harmony among five kids. The in charge system was indeed time-tested. Here’s how it works.

Each child has a day that he or she is “in charge.” In the case of a two-child family, the kids are in charge on alternate days. In larger families, in charge can go in order of age (and it probably is a good idea to keep a record of who’s in charge on the family calendar). On the day that a child is in charge, he or she has first priority on anything that comes up—the first turn with a coveted toy; the first to be pushed on the swing; or the first to choose a book to be read. If there’s a choice of whether to go to the park or the library or what restaurant to go to for dinner, the child in charge has the honor. If there’s an elevator button to be pushed, no questions asked about who does it. Picking the TV show, ordering an ice cream cone first, sitting next to Daddy in the restaurant, talking to Grandma first on the phone—all those little things that can start a fight—are instantly resolved when the kids are reminded who’s in charge.

But the person in charge not only gets all the privileges. He or she has first priority on family responsibilities and chores, too. Who’ll watch the baby when Mom takes a shower? Who feeds the dog? Who sets and clears the table? As the kids get older, the responsibilities can increase—answering the phone, walking the dog, putting the laundry away, cutting the grass, etc. There’s never an argument about whose turn it is with the in charge system.

There are only a handful of rules. You are, of course, always in charge on your birthday (as you can’t have another child getting the first piece of your birthday cake!). Also, in multiple-child families, if the child who is in charge is not at home, the privileges of in charge go in order, oldest to youngest (or whatever order you decide) so the next youngest sibling would be “second in charge” and so on.

The system worked so well when I was growing up that my brother and I would figure out who was in charge when we came home from college to help cut down on arguments about which TV program to watch (in the days when there was only one television in the house).

A few weeks after the baby was born, my daughter instituted the in charge system. The twins took to it immediately and peace and order were almost instantly restored. Six months later, they live by this system. One of the first things that the girls say in the morning is, “I’m in charge today!” But if the other twin has the honor, she consoles herself, certain that her turn will come tomorrow. And each is comforted, knowing that she WILL have a turn to go first or choose the book or play with the doll—at least on alternate days—and that’s as fair as it can get.

Blakely Bundy, M.Ed., has been the executive director of the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood since 1989. This article was first published in the Fall-Winter 2008-09 issue of

Early Childhood

.

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