Education expert Cynthia Tobias explains what parents can do to reduce the amount of conflict between their children and create a more peaceful home environment.
John: Welcome to another edition of “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim: Hey, John, today we’re gonna talk about sibling rivalry with a wonderful guest, Cynthia Tobias. But I’ve got a little example of how this works and it’s from my own sons, Trent and Troy and let me set it up for you, because this is a few years back. I think Troy is probably 6-years-old. And we did a science experience that we bought at Hobby Lobby actually and you connect battery cables, small little mini cables to test tubes and you submerse them in water and then overnight, hydrogen gas fills the tubes.
John: Sounds kinda dangerous.
Jim: It is. Hydrogen gas is rocket fuel. (Laughter) And then you light the tube and it goes “kabang.” It’s safe everybody. Don’t worry. But your kids go, “Wow, you’re a cool dad.”
John: That was awesome!
Jim: That was awesome. So we did this experiment. The next night I had left it out on the counter. That was my mistake.
Jim: And we had a 14-, 15-year-old babysitter at the house; she just wasn’t involved in this at all (Laughing). And Jean and I had gone to a dinner for Focus on the Family and we got this phone call message from Troy, the younger.
Troy: Hi, Mommy. Trenton actually was dumb enough to get the battery. I put my tongue on and the mini jump cables and actually plugged it into the DVD player and it caused smoke. But don’t worry; it did not start a fire. This is Troy and by the way, Trent did it, okay? Okay. And have I been besific … specific enough? Okay, bye? Oh, besides, don’t go easy on Trent.
End of Phone Message
Jim: (Laughter) Okay, for me, that proves–
John: That’s such a great story.
Jim: –the story of Cain and Abel. I mean (Laughter) like we’re born with this in our heart to go after our brothers and sisters–
John: It was his fault.
Jim: –literally. (Laughter)
John: He did it.
Jim: He did it, not me.
Jim: And make sure you punish him good. (Laughter) Cynthia, with that, welcome to “Focus on the Family.”
Cynthia. Thanks. It’s great to be here as always.
Jim: Now sibling rivalry like that and probably far worse occurs just about in every family.
Jim: Did you have experience like that with your own twin boys?
Cynthia: Absolutely, you know, we always had family prayers at night at bedtime. And it wasn’t unusual at all to have either Rob or Mike, for their prayer they would say, “And Lord, please come down and kill my brother for–
Cynthia: –what he did.” And we’d say, “Wait a minute. You cannot pray to God to come punish your brother.”
Jim: Did that work? Can we instruct in that way? I mean, did they …
Cynthia: Well, the next night they would just try something different, but it was–
Jim: Break his arm?
Cynthia: –yeah, you’d never know (Laughter), ’cause you’d hear Mike say, “You’re fired, Robert. You’re not my brother anymore. You’re fired.”
Jim: Oh (Laughter) man.
John: That’s great. You know, we’ve had the same thing. I mean, I remember specifically waiting for the second of our two older boys to grow up and just knock his brother flat on his back for all the taunting and the teasing and the tormenting that, that older brother did. This is just an inevitable thing and there are a lot of parents, Jim, who feel like, “I’m the only one.”
Jim: Oh, without a doubt. And we’re gonna talk about that today with Cynthia Tobias. Cynthia’s been a guest on this program so many times–
Jim: –and really, Cynthia, it’s so wonderful to have you on. You’re the author of a number of books. Today we want to talk about one of your best-sellers, Every Child Can Succeed and we’ll touch on that, but you’ll bring in all the content from a number of books, I’m sure, as we talk about this topic. Let me ask you, especially for us as Christians, why is this so draining? Is it normal for siblings to act this way and should we just kind of accept it? Or do we need to engage it, to make sure we control it?
Cynthia: I think that’s why it’s frustrating to us, ’cause we’re asking ourselves, how much of this conflict is really normal?
Cynthia: Is it something I’m doing as a parent or not doing? And I don’t know a scientific answer or clinical psychology answer to it. All I know is, in all these years of my experience as a parent and an educator and talking to parents, it’s totally normal. A lot of sibling rivalry is normal, because you know, kids are growing up trying to figure out the world and figure out how to get along with each other. I think there are some red flags that you can notice and I think there are some warning signs when you really need to step in. But I think it’s important also not to overreact–
Jim: Uh …
Cynthia: –so that you know, how much really is normal.
Jim: Cynthia, you mentioned the red flags. Where’s that line? I mean, when do I intervene and know when to engage?
Cynthia: Well, of course, one of the red flags is actual physical bullying, if that happens. Another red flag is, the argument is just spinning out of control and you need to step in, ’cause it’s getting so heated, you just say, “Time out.”
Jim: Verbal abuse–
Cynthia: Verb …
Jim: –in other words.
Cynthia: Yeah, it’s just getting crazy. You guys are getting just so wrought up and so out of control, we’re gonna stop. And then the third one language, not only profanity, but when the conversation just deteriorates to where it’s just cutting. It’s mean. It’s unnecessarily negative.
Jim: So, that’s a firm boundary.
Jim: Well, what kind of punishment should be there in that case? I mean, if the kids are going over the boundary line, what would you do? Would you give them time outs? Would you take away privileges, all of that?
Cynthia: I think you would follow whatever your pattern is for other violations. And talk about that with your kids beforehand, too if you can, depending on the age of the kids. Say, “Would you agree that we should not be hateful toward each other?” And they all agree. “What do you think the punishment should be if we say this phrase that we’re not supposed to?” And again, is it money in the jar? Is it, you know, so you get their participation in it, then it makes them think twice usually about doing it. And even when they do it without thinking, they at least have a price to pay, not out of hand, you know, not “You’re grounded for a week” or whatever, just because of that. But it does deserve some attention to say, this is important to us as a family. This matters to us.
Jim: Yeah and don’t sell yourself short here. I mean, it’s not about being a Ph.D. I mean, you worked in schools and you worked at a police officer, as well. So, you are all about authority and teaching people how to do the right thing.
Cynthia: And I think parents need to know that, too, that you don’t have to be an expert in psychology to figure out if this is normal or not. In other words, if it gets drastic, then obviously you can go and you can find a resource to say, this is really drastic. But most of the time as parents and as normal, relatively normal people ourselves, I think (Laughing)–
Jim: I think so.
Cynthia: –we can deal with it.
Jim: I may be shocked.
John: Oh, I’m totally normal, yes. (Laughter)
Cynthia: I think so.
Jim: But let’s start with the basics. What is it? What is sibling rivalry and why does it occur?
Cynthia: I think there’s this natural friction that anytime you have more than one person, you have another perspective. You have another way of looking at things and especially with siblings, you have different age levels.
For me, my sister was five years younger than me, so at first it was great, because I had kind of a toy and a plaything. And then she had a mentor and I would teach her things. But she irritated me like crazy, because she would tear the heads off my paper dolls when I was younger. She was always wanting to tag along to places, because there was such an age gap–
Cynthia: –so people say, well, maybe you oughta have ’em closer together. But then I’ve talked to so many parents. Your kids are fairly close together, right, John?
John: Some of them are within 18 months, yeah.
Cynthia: And …
John: That doesn’t solve the problem.
Cynthia: It doesn’t. (Laughter) It doesn’t. And I just wonder if it isn’t that it’s a natural thing as you’re growing up. One of the skills that you need to learn is how to get along with people. And you’re safe at home. This is a safe place. Your family, they’re stuck with you. They’re not gonna (Laughter) kick you out.
Jim: So, you let your guard down, in other words.
Cynthia: You tend to test things out on people that you know aren’t gonna walk away.
Jim: Do you think some of this is really rooted in vying for mom and dad’s attention? Is that part of it?
Cynthia: I would think so. And a little competitive, you know, with my boys, there’s this competition because they’re not only siblings, but they’re peers. They’re close enough in age, two minutes apart with my case, but even if they’re only 18 months, they share the same fears. So, there’s a competitive nature to it. And that’s when it’s really important as parents, for us to be sure that we’re focusing on each child’s strengths and that we’re pointing that out in front of the other child. You shouldn’t be yelling at one child in front of the other, but you definitely should be pointing out the strength, giving the positive comments in the presence of the other children, so that they get used to hearing positives.
Jim: I can remember Trent and Troy. Trent’s, you know, two years older almost to the day. Their birthdays are August 8th and August 12th.
Jim: And two years separate them and about 8 inches. I mean (Laughter), it’s been an 8-inch gap their entire life. And so, one of the early memories I have of Trent, the older, the larger of the two, is him putting his hand right on his forehead and Troy is flailing away, trying to get his brother, you know, tryin’ to smack him. And Trent’s got this huge smile on his face, looking at me. He’s probably 5 and Troy’s probably 3. And (Chuckling) he’s got his hand out there and Troy’s down there frustrated as could be, like a little badger. (Laughter) And Trent’s just laughin’, thinkin’ this is funny.
Jim: Now I’m at the point where I’m sayin’, “Trent, be careful, ’cause you know, Troy’s–
Cynthia: You don’t know your own strength.
Jim: — a little older now and he’s startin’ to figure you out. And (Laughter) that happens. Let me bring it back to that question for mom and dad; how much of that is okay. It’s healthy; it’s normal. Let ’em wrestle. How do you put boundaries around it? When does it cross the line that you need to really intervene to control the situation for safety and everything else?
Cynthia: Well, I think if you’re talking about a bullying situation, to think of it in the context of, if it’s physically threatening or harming, especially as a result of having a distinct advantage for age and size, I think you need to step in if it becomes physically harmful. With boys, you can go a little further, I think, ’cause there is a lot of wrestling. I mean, boys just …
Jim: They’re physical.
Cynthia: They’re real physical and so, it’s important that you don’t overreact, but you know, you just kinda keep an eye on it, because the more you overreact, then the worse it will get instead of the better.
Jim: What happens you know, if you have three four or five children, that gang-up attitude, that maybe there’s someone in the family that the other siblings do tend to pick on more than anyone else. What do you do in that situation?
Cynthia: Well, I think if it becomes a serious situation, first of all, I would not correct them in front of everybody. But I would definitely talk to ’em, you know. Did you mean to hurt your sister’s feelings? Did you do that on purpose? No. Or why do you think so? But you understand why she was hurt. You know, to ask them that and come to draw it to their attention.
And also, one of the things that seems to work is, taking the positive tack, like in our family, my dad was a real positive thinker. And so, we were not allowed … we made a rule in our household that you could not say anything bad about anybody, including your sister, unless you said three good things at the same time.
So, there would be times when I was just about to say somethin’ to her and think, “Oh, I don’t want to say three good things.” (Laughter) Just kinda of shut up. (Laughing)
Jim: But you actually did it.
Cynthia: We actually did it.
Jim: As a strong-willed child, the way I understand you …
Cynthia: Yes, ’cause I was in my part of the process of deciding about it and (Laughter) I was gonna enforce it just like anybody.
John: Jim, it sounds like you might have been the victim of some of that ganging up by your older siblings.
Jim: You know, in some ways, they protected me, because they were so much older than me. I’m six years away from my closest sibling and they’re all about, you know, 12 to 18 months apart. So, they’re very close, all four of them and they ran together and they were teenagers together. I was always the “addition,” you know. I remember my brother when he was probably 16 or 17, Dave, going out on a date to the drive in and I said, “Can I go?” And he, of course, said no. So, I went to my mom and said, “Mom, I want to go to the drive-in-movie, too. I want to watch that movie.” She said, “Okay, I’ll talk to your brother.”
Jim: I actually went with him on his date–
John: On a date.
Jim: –with Judy McCracken. I’ll never forget it.
Jim: And so, the funniest part was at the intermission. This is back in the drive-in days, right?
Jim: So, the intermission comes and we all go to the snack shack together, as it was called. I’m probably 7. And we’re standing in line and Judy had to go to the ladies’ room and so, Dave and I are standing in line. He looks at me and he says, “You sit down on the benches for the second part of the movie. I don’t want you in that car.” I said, “Well, why not?” I mean (Laughter)–
Cynthia: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: –I was 7-years-old.
Jim: Why not? And oh, my goodness, he was so irritated at me. So, what did I do? I go to Judy. I intercept her on her way back from the girls’ room. I said, “Dave doesn’t want me to sit in the car anymore. He wants me to sit on the cold benches.”
Jim: So, she goes right to my brother and says, “Jimmy is sittin’ in the car with us.” And he gave me the worst glare I have ever seen. I think I blew his night up. That’s basically it. But you know what? I was already workin’ on behalf of the Lord in his heart.
Cynthia: That’s right.
Cynthia: You’re just doin’ your job, Jim.
Jim: (Laughing) Has he ever forgiven you for that? No, we howl about that to this day.
John: Now’s the time.
Jim: And we talk about it every time we get together. I think it’s a sore subject for him. (Laughter)
John: That’s evidence though that you can get over some of that conflict.
Jim: Well, it’s also evidence that you’re up to the task, even as a 7-year-old. (Laughing) I mean–
Jim: –you’re ready to roll. It’s kinda like …
Cynthia: And you were figuring out how to make the most of this situation.
Jim: Yeah, we come out of the womb. You know, you want to take me on; let’s go.
Jim: And that’s part of it. Talk about some other things moms and dads can do practically speaking. I like the idea, if you say something negative, you gotta say three things positive. We’ll be implementing that tonight in the Daly household.
Jim: But you know, often it’s … it’s things that, yeah, you’re so tired as a parent. You’ve worked all day. You’re sittin’ there, hopefully, you’re sittin’ together having dinner and the one says, “You’re stupid.” And you go, “Hey, we don’t talk like that to each other in our family only aspirational, uplifting.” “Okay, okay.” Then 15 minutes later, “You are so dumb.” I mean, how do you … it’s exhausting to keep on it, but is that it? Is–
Cynthia: It is.
Jim: –that the 10,000 chicken pecks?
Cynthia: Well, well, you know, you can spread the chicken pecks out and you know, make deputize your kids and say, you know, “There are words that we can use, and words that we can’t use.” And you know, you can say, “I’m tired of you.” But you can’t say, “I’m gonna kill you.” You can say, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” But you can’t say, “I hate you.” You know, and say, “Let’s just decide on a few phrases that we’re gonna ban and then, let’s have a jar right here and then if we hear that phrase, whoever said it has to put a nickel in.” ‘Cause we did that when we were younger, too and we got broke right away. We didn’t have that big an allowance.
So again, you know, finding motivators. Spread the responsibility around, because it’s not always just up to parents to nag, nag, nag, because that doesn’t always work either.
Jim: Well, and let’s play that out a bit, especially again, we’re talking about homes that have a core belief in Jesus Christ. And so, you want to be able to do that well, to train up your child well. So, that spiritual application, you know, this isn’t how God would want us to be treated. He loves us. But it does seem to be just endless. It just is exhausting at times.
Cynthia: With my boys, I would say, “Robert, do you want your life to bring honor and glory to God?” “Yes, Mom, you know I do.” “Well, do you think what you just said did that?” And after a while I would say, “Rob, do …” “I know’ I know.” (Laughter) But you know, at least they know.
John: Well, you’re listening to Cynthia Tobias on today’s “Focus on the Family” and your host is Jim Daly. We’ve been talking so far about sibling rivalry. And we have more to come, so please stay with us if you can. Get a download or a CD of this program and also a copy of Cynthia’s book, Every Child Can Succeed, along with a lot of helpful parenting tips at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
Jim: Cynthia, let me read an example. We get letters and e-mails here. This one caught my attention because uh … I hadn’t thought of it happening in quite this way, but let me just read it. It’s from Lisa. She wrote and said, “Our oldest was a straight A student and we gave him $100 each grade period, until his brother two years younger got straight A‘s, seemingly without effort. Then our oldest basically gave up and barely got by with C‘s and D‘s.” That’s interesting, ’cause you’re trying to motivate. We do that with Trent and Troy to motivate them to get A‘s and B‘s, and not that much. (Laughter) But that’s pretty good. You want to adopt me? (Laughter) But as Lisa’s expressing there, that can backfire. What do you do in that situation, just regroup and think it through differently? You’re getting the exact opposite behavior out of your oldest child in this case with Lisa, that you want to see. What do you do?
Cynthia: Right. Sometimes the competition that you set up between them backfires on you that way, because then if they compare each other, they’re goin’, “Well, what’s the use? You know, I give up.” I remember early on in primary school, boys’ timed math test. Mike was very good at it, ’cause he’s just kinda highly analytic and a time test didn’t bother him. With Robert, all he could think about was the tick, tick, tick, ding.
Cynthia: And so, the ones that he got, he got right, but he just couldn’t do it. And so, Mike was way ahead of him and they’re in the same grade, and so, Mike would just taunt him mercilessly. “Oh, you’re on only B level. I’m on L level. You’re so stupid, ’cause you can’t do it.” And I went in and asked the teacher. I said, “What’s the point of time tests?” And we finally got to the point where it said, “Well, you have to be able to add them quickly, so that when you get to multiplication.” And so, I said, “Well, would it be all right if we wrote down at the beginning of the time test the time he started and wrote down the time he ended and then he would work to beat his own best time. And then that worked, because then Robert wasn’t listening to “tick, tick, tick, tick, ding.” He was just–
Jim: Tryin’ to get it done.
Cynthia: –tryin’ to get it done and then looking at the clock. And then the next time, he was tryin’ to … he looked and he was just pushing himself to get his own better time. And then when the boys compared, they weren’t comparing levels, as much as we also compared the level of improvement. Look how much Rob improved over this time, versus this. So, sometimes you can look for a different way to measure. Just because you got an A and he got a B, does that mean that he’s not as smart as you? And again, this goes back to being able to point out strengths and focus on strengths in your kids in front of them. Because you’re better at math because you really love it and you’re just called to do it in your heart. But you know, he’s a lot more artistic. And the way he uses math is so different, that you wouldn’t be comfortable with the art and he’s not comfortable with the math. So, you can see where we can be different and compete in different ways.
Jim: I think another key thing is, you have to be mindful and I notice this with our guys again, because Trend, he’s a big kid. He takes after my dad, who was 6’6″. He’s got the genes. And he’s tall. And uh … everybody will comment on that. Whoa, you’re tall for your age. And Troy’s always just sittin’ there, goin’, okay. I’m just average. So, I’ve really gone out of my way to make sure that I’m saying, “Troy, you are getting’ big.” I mean, Troy is husky. And so, I comment on that. But he’s always 8 inches behind Trent and that’s gonna be the story of his life, I think. I don’t think he’ll ever make up that ground, even as adults. But you’ve gotta find the strengths in your other children, especially when friends and neighbors are always commenting on the other child, whatever that may … if he’s the quarterback of the football team or whatever. Be mindful that the other child is hearing that, as well.
Cynthia: That’s right, ’cause if you’re correcting that other child, you’re giving his sibling ammunition, right? You’re giving him, “Well, see and you told …” But if you’re praising him, like you’re doing, you’re saying, this is a great strength, then you’re also giving him those words to think about his brother or his sister that way, too.
Jim: Let’s talk for a minute. We’re talkin’ boys a lot, and John, you gotta jump in with your girls. But let’s talk about girls, because girls from what I understand from parents with girls, especially you got two or three girls in the home, it can get kinda brutal around body image and other things. Let’s talk about that a bit in terms of the sister rivalry when it comes to body image. How do you engage that as a parent to make it healthy, when they’re calling each other fat or ugly or whatever it might be?
Cynthia: You know, a lot of times, I think with … and John, you can say if this is right now. With my sister and me, a lot of times, if we criticized each other, it was because of some kind of deficiency we felt in ourselves. And we were trying to compensate and, well, at least, I’m not that bad. I mean, I may look dog ugly, but I’m not as ugly as you.
But you know, it was just trying to build ourselves up at the expense of the other person. And the younger you are, the more you don’t necessarily do it on purpose, because you’re just trying to figure it out. But when you get to be middle school and above, you have this calculated, you know, I can make myself feel better if I realize, at least I’m not like you.
And then again, it is damaging and it’s something that the parent, not in front of the sibling, but it’s something that needs to be addressed and usually if you can address it through questions instead of just saying, “You know, that’s the wrong thing to do and delivering the lecture. Asking, and did you realize what your words meant to your sister? Did you have any idea what they meant?” I don’t know. Really? ‘Cause if you were gonna guess, would you say that your sister feels better about what you said or not so good? So, that they need to come to this realization that I should not make myself look better at the expense of somebody else.
Jim: The other aspect of this, the middle child, let’s concentrate on that. The older child tends to get praise, ’cause they’re physically bigger. They’re the firstborn. They’re the apple of your eye for whatever reason, but usually firstborns get pretty good treatment in certain ways. And “last borns” get good treatment, you know. In my little cherubim …
Cynthia: My baby.
Jim: My little baby, my cherubim. (Laughter) I was that.
John: Yeah. (Laughter) You’ve always been a cherubim.
Cynthia: Speaking from experience. (Laughter)
Jim: But the middle child can get lost, ’cause what special status do I have? And they feel lost. They’re not the firstborn. They don’t hear about, oh, you know, we weren’t expecting any other children and then Jimmy came along. It gives you special status when you’re the last born, you know. We were the surprise babies, you know, the last attempt.
Jim: But the middle child is going, okay, but what’s special about me? Talk about that.
Cynthia: Well, the best example that I have that comes to mind, Robert, who is the youngest, he’s not the middle, but he’s the youngest only by two minutes. But his brother’s strong-willed, so Mike always tends to get much more attention. And Rob, because he’s more compliant, would just kind of fade back.
And I told Rob when he was younger, he was probably about 3rd grade, I said, “Do you have any idea how valuable you’re gonna be when you’re an adult?” He goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “You have grown up with a strong-willed mom and a strong-willed brother” and I said, “You are developing this wonderful skill of being able to pull people together and be a peacemaker. You’re practicing on your brother. And you’re gonna be very valuable in the workplace. People are going to really … ” And I picture that with that middle child saying, “Do you realize, being in the middle and you have people ahead of you, behind you, with all these things, what a great skill set you’re developing as far as being able to pull people together as a group?”
Jim: That’s a great idea. Give them the long view of life. Because in especially the middle years, you know, middle school years–
Jim: –you’re so down on yourself. You can’t do anything right. I’m clumsy. I’m too skinny. I’m too big. whatever it is; you’re beginning to develop greater self-awareness at that age and you come up short in whatever way.
Jim: I’ve got so many pimples. You know, but that’s it. You’re living right in the moment. You’re not thinking when you’re gonna be 25, 35, 45. So, that’s a wonderful idea to kinda give them a deeper perspective about where things will be when they’re older.
Jim: Let’s end with perhaps the greatest issue, especially with younger children, the issue of sharing. Most of what we’re talking today, Cynthia, is in the area of character development. That’s what we’re talking about at the core. And again, as Christian parents who want our children to launch well when they’re 18, 19, we want them to be good citizens. We want them to be connected to God, to live their lives for the Lord, even with the shortcomings that we all have as human beings. But you want ’em to have a vibrant spiritual life. In that regard, for those younger kids at 3, 4, 5, when they’re not showing selflessness, which is normal–
Jim: –a lot of parents get apoplectic. They’re just “Aah!” They’re exasperated about the fact that their kids aren’t sharing at the park or whatever it might be. What’s some practical advice that a mom or dad can do to get their child on a better track?
Cynthia: Keep your voice gentle and calm and reasonable, because at that young age, they’re mirroring you. They’re going to mirror what you say and how you say it. And just demonstrate for them sharing. And you insist on it and you have the bottom line accountability, but you decide how much can you let go and decide what’s normal. And even when you have to punish, you keep your voice gentle, but very firm and calm and you just deliver the punishment if it has to be. Or you say, “You know, well, this works better. I’m going to give Robbie this one, because he would really like it and I want it.” I understand that. And you keep your voice calm, because whatever you’re saying, however you deliver your message, they’re gonna deliver that back to you and to other kids that they work with.
Jim: Oh, that is really good. And that’s one of the first lessons, yo
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