We have a nearly 5 year old boy and a 2 year old girl. Our son has gotten in the habit of, when we ask them both to choose something, waiting for his sister to choose then immediately choosing the same. For instance: Me: "Which plate do you want?" Kids: "Ummmm...." Daughter: "Green" Son: "I want green!!"

Usually we give our daughter her choice and explain to him that he can't just wait and pick what she wants, but I can see this rubbing him the wrong way because "she always gets what she wants"

Any other suggestions on how to handle these issues?

  • 85
    er...make him pick first?
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 17, 2017 at 20:21
  • 12
    Obvious solution seems to be having two green plates.
    – aroth
    Jul 18, 2017 at 1:59
  • 18
    Alternate who gets to pick first.
    – skymningen
    Jul 18, 2017 at 9:12
  • 7
    @Wildcard - well because it's a terrible idea to allow this kind of behaviour.
    – Davor
    Jul 18, 2017 at 12:37
  • 11
    Taking turns is the best idea, IMO. If your son won't choose first, even if it is his turn, then make it clear that he has "passed" and that whatever his sister chooses is final. You won't be able to get rid of the rivalry, but focus on addressing "right" behavior rather than "right" feelings will probably be the best path. Jul 18, 2017 at 17:07

8 Answers 8


Explain the problem and your solution clearly.

The 5-year-old probably is able to understand first come first served. If your rule is the first to speak gets their way, be clear that is why the girl gets her choice. Trying to use your interpretation of his motivations in explaining the rule may not be clear if he doesn't understand his feelings using those words; often children (most people really) have some trouble being clear about why they want what they want.

If you want to continue to offer choices but don't want to worry about competition only allow one to choose at a time. Instead of "kids pick your plates." Say "[one kid] it is your turn to pick first, [other kid] you will get to pick first next time." Since the 5-year-old feels he's been losing I would offer him first pick first. Keeping track of whose turn it is across multiple activities with multiple care takers is left as an exercise for the reader.

Or ask him. A 5-year-old probably has some notions of fairness, and a conversation about it is a great way to help align them with yours. Be sure you have good support for your notions of fairness; I would have a good explanation or two (the more ways you can explain tricky concepts the more likely one will be understood) of why "I always get my way" is not acceptable ready and then try to work out how his plans lead to it.

  • 2
    I’m not a parent, but would a solution be just don’t give them a choice - the colour is pretty irrelevant here? Does this have significant negotiate consequences?
    – Tim
    Jul 17, 2017 at 22:59
  • 29
    I was one of six siblings (still am, actually), and we had enormous quarrels over who got the blue bowl for breakfast. So there was a rota: I think I got it on Tuesdays. These things are actually a great opportunity for parents to teach fairness and justice: work with your child to devise a solution that they can recognise as being fair. Tantrums over trivial things are much easier to handle than genuine grievances (like one child getting special attention because they genuinely have special needs). Jul 17, 2017 at 23:51
  • 21
    @Tim: The colour might not be significant to you, but it can make the world for a 2 year old.
    – PlasmaHH
    Jul 18, 2017 at 9:15
  • 31
    I found keeping track of whose turn it is across multiple activities impossible, so I started tossing a coin. Now my children argue over who gets to be heads.
    – jwg
    Jul 18, 2017 at 11:16
  • 3
    @tim a trick in parenting is to give "insignificant" choice to kids instead of telling them what to do. Instead of "put your socks" say "do you want to put the green or the red sock?" It also practice their mind.
    – the_lotus
    Jul 18, 2017 at 12:24

People are not robbed of choices they were never given to begin with.

Asking two children open-ended "which would you like?"-style questions is a recipe for disaster if you don't have the resources to satisfy both of them.

Instead, ask one child:

Which would you like?

If you know that child will have a hard time choosing, make it a leading question:

Do you want the green one?

The problem with this solution is of course favoritism. The general solution to the problem is to keep track of who you last asked. Children tend to be good at keeping track of when they didn't get to pick, so you can be up-front and ask who's turn it is to pick before asking one or the other.

Once both children are old enough, the next step is to help them develop empathy by asking one what the other would like.

  • 4
    Your clause about resources highlights an important alternative solution: Buy two plates of each color.
    – Wildcard
    Jul 18, 2017 at 0:11
  • 16
    @Wildcard - although that solves this problem, it also denies the children an opportunity to grow...
    – Shadow
    Jul 18, 2017 at 3:37
  • 4
    @shadow, I would agree with that if it were actually a different scenario. But it's not; it's this scenario. There really is nothing wrong with buying two plates of each color just to make both kids happy and increase their freedom of choice. You have to define "grow" very strangely to validate your comment; perhaps according to Zeno's Apatheia: if "grow" means "to accept the fact that one's desires cannot be fulfilled" then yes. But I'd call that "defeated," not "growing."
    – Wildcard
    Jul 18, 2017 at 3:48
  • 5
    You might call it "defeated" - but I would call it "realistic". Learning compromise is a really important thing to do - they are going to be in situations where you can't just 'buy another plate'. I think it's better that they learn those lessons in situations where it barely matters like this, so they are ready for when it does. Also I don't find it hard to believe that the very next thing they'd be fighting over is who gets the 'new' green plate...
    – Shadow
    Jul 18, 2017 at 3:51
  • 4
    Reality being quite messy, it's unlikely that one can afford the spare plates in every circumstance. Of course if you are so fortunate that you can, it's generally advisable not to spoil your children by giving them everything they ask for every time they ask for it.
    – zzzzBov
    Jul 18, 2017 at 4:03

Have you considered that your son may be "deliberately" forcing the conflict? I put "deliberately" in quotes, because it probably isn't conscious or intentional, but doesn't seem like any coincidence that he always places you in a situation where you have to pick sides.

You may want to institute a consistent rule --oldest picks first, youngest picks first, strict alternation. The actual rule doesn't matter as much as the consistency, and whether or not you are able to provide a legitimate justification for it. The main thing is to reduce the opportunity for the situation to be a referendum on which child has the upper hand.

Personally I think absolute fairness is a myth --children are different, and different ages are different too. The key is to make sure you're not displaying actual favoritism (and not just perceived favoritism).

  • 11
    It sounds to me more like the son just has a longer lag in his communication/decision than the daughter. And kids at that age are likely to choose whatever their attention is put on. So when the daughter says, "green!" it puts his attention on the green plate and he chooses that. (Conversely, the easy way to handle a kid wanting something he shouldn't have, like a power saw, isn't to discuss why he can't have it but to put his attention on something else that he can have.)
    – Wildcard
    Jul 18, 2017 at 0:10
  • @Wildcard That's possible too. A lot depends on the specific kid. Jul 18, 2017 at 1:08

There are a number of good answers already but I didn't see anyone mention giving one sibling the chance to pick for the other and rotate.

Day 1: Son, which plate do you think your sister would like?

Day 2: Daughter, which plate do you think your brother would like?

The idea is on their day to choose, they are taught to make their sibling happy. The end result is the same as taking turns but the motivation is different.

I never really had this issue with my kids but we had the issue of splitting a soda and one pours and grabs the cup that has more soda. The solution for that was one pours and the other chooses. It's kinda hilarious to watch your kids practically get out the ruler to make sure they are even... like a few more drops really makes that much of a difference.

  • 1
    The downside I can see to this would be age related. When a child is young enough, they often think others will like what they like. So I know, right now, my daughter (3) would pick her favorite to give to her brother when trying to be kind, yet he wouldn't love it. And then if I direct her better, I am not actually allowing her to pick, but rather I am doing the picking on her behalf. If her brother is upset, she runs now & grabs her bunny & offers it. He doesn't want her bunny. When he is calm, he does understand she was trying to help, but she can't really grasp it's not helping.
    – threetimes
    Jul 19, 2017 at 4:59
  • 1
    @threetimes That would be a good time to say, what do you think your brother would want? Oh, really? Let's ask him and make sure. But I agree with you... I still think everyone should like what I like... ;)
    – JeffC
    Jul 19, 2017 at 13:12
  • This is a great approach, whether it works or not, because it gets them to think outside their own wants and needs a bit.
    – Kzqai
    Jul 21, 2017 at 11:32

The simple solution is buy two plates of each color.

There may be times when your children will not be able to have what they desire. (Maybe. Philosophies differ on that.)

This is not one of those times.

You should decide what lesson you want to convey.

Some people want to convey the lesson, "Even the simple things in life are hard to get or achieve." I don't like that lesson, don't agree with it, and don't wish to convey it to my son.

Another philosophy is that one can always get what one wants or dreams of, given sufficient intention to achieve it and sufficient hard work and planning.

I like this lesson, more or less, and would be happy to convey it to my son. This would suggest an approach of making the child responsible for earning the money to buy the additional desired plate. But for something as simple as an extra plate, I might just buy it. (Also see notes below concerning EXCHANGE.)

Perhaps you wish your son to be polite. That I can agree with.

However, politeness is not the senior attribute for all of life. I want to make some outrageous analogies that are less in response to you (the Original Poster) and more in response to various comments and other attitudes on this subject I've observed in life:

You have to consider what your own intentions really are if you don't want to purchase another plate. And determine if you are truly working toward a desirable goal, or just aren't willing for the kid to get what he wants (a "can't have" attitude).

To give an outrageous reductio ad absurdum example, probably offensive, imagine someone striking a screaming child repeatedly and saying, "I'm going to teach him some manners! I'm not going to stop until he asks me politely." What motivates this? Maybe a lot of things, but certainly not a clear-cut wholesome desire for the child's improvement.

One of the things that might motivate it would be a convoluted ideology that "Life is awful tough and if you don't learn to take your lumps without screaming now, you'll have to learn it later when the lumps won't be administered by a loving parent like me."

None of this is related to actually improving the child, despite the justifications used. (If you disagree, perhaps time for some introspection.)

I make that wild analogy because it's the same mental mechanism behind denying the child what he wants simply because it may not always be possible to fulfill the desire.

The most important factor is exchange. Exchange is something in return for something. This exchange does not have to be with money.

When the child is very young the exchange may be simply asking nicely, or it may be making you smile and laugh. That is his (or her) contribution. You can reward that with an extra plate. (I'm not saying you will explicitly label it as a reward.)

When the child is older and wants a new bicycle, you may work out other exchange. When he or she wants a car, the teenager may have to produce and contribute and exchange with other people to earn the money necessary to buy a car.

The type of exchange will change; the fact of exchange will not.

You should avoid the child reaching the point where he believes he can get anything he wants with no exchange or contribution on his part whatsoever. But you should also avoid engendering the belief that he can't get what he wants no matter what he does or contributes.

The contention on this answer (six upvotes and three downvotes at this writing) is interesting.

I'm addressing this specific question, not some hypothetical other question which may or may not be similar. In fact, my basic premise here is that:

The key to handling this situation is to not equate it with other situations.

Your kids both want a green plate. Fine, get two green plates. Handled.

Yes, there are other things they really can't both have, but plates is not one of them.

When you encounter other things they really can't both have, get them to understand the real reasons why not.

And they'll know you're telling the truth, because they'll know by experience (green plates) that if there weren't any real reasons for them not to have it, they could have it.

If you can't explain the reason to the kid in a persuasive way that they can understand and agree with, there's probably something wrong with your reason.

Try getting a kid to understand: "No, you can't have a plate, because then when there are other things that you can't have, you won't understand why you can't have them." Factually, that reason makes absolutely no sense at all.

  • 11
    But it's not about the plate or the colour. He just wants it because his sister wants it. If the plate problem is solved he'll find something else to whinge about.
    – RedSonja
    Jul 18, 2017 at 13:02
  • 1
    Aside from the plate being replacable by practically any kind of object (toys, crayons, food) a kid might be interested in, this conflict will also arise in other situations, such as sitting next to mommy or daddy, or whenever there are two activities which require the kids have to take turns, then swap.
    – Llewellyn
    Jul 20, 2017 at 18:38
  • @RedSonja, see edit.
    – Wildcard
    Jul 20, 2017 at 22:29
  • 1
    "choose something" and "for instance" imply that the OP has a more general problem.
    – user26011
    Jul 20, 2017 at 23:33
  • 1
    When I was a kid I always fought with my little sister. She always liked the things I had and I was jealous over attention she got. Bying plates won't help. When we were fighting over the toy, our mom used to buy us one more and we just lost interest in them and switched to something else, untill the moment our parents had tired of the piles of toys, set with us and talked about empathy, relationships and how we should care for each other. It worked better.
    – Amberta
    Jul 21, 2017 at 9:14

Since it seems this is a recurring issue, I would address the underlying need to compete/rivalry that is happening. In my life I have worked with some strategies that have been very helpful.

One of my best ones is buy a gift for the younger child the older one really would want. It an even be a little too old for your younger one or not their typical desire. You do this to give your younger child a balance in currency. It is normal for a younger child to want to be more like the older child, eye all their cool things he/she can't touch, etc, but the younger child doesn't usually legitimately have much the older child wants & that they have any control over. So gifting them a toy the older child would want is one such way to rebalance some leverage between them.

I work on talking to them about siblings, what that means, and our family values on how we treat the members of the family. I instill strongly in my older children what an important job they have while growing up to teach the younger one(s) things, and to watch out for them, have their back & as the little one(s) get bigger, they will have chances to reciprocate that as well. I constantly refer to us as a team & how different people on every team have their positions, their strongsuits and weaknesses & we work as a whole to optimism everyone's abilities. And I absolutely say "Come on team Smith, let's get it together" to remind them when they are not acting as a team. I also tell them all the time that we do not compete with people on our own team, we don't beat them down or try to undermine them. We are supposed to help the team be stronger by helping every person on the team to grow & feel confident & look out for each other. Together we can take on the world.

And I do offer lots of choices, but I am mindful how they are offered. With plates I have actually gone to all the same plates, every child has their own specific cup, they chose & I bought several of each (I started with one per kid & washed as needed). The plates are pricey, but I love the ones I settled on because they are super durable & suction down to the table. They are for small kids or special needs. The point is they have shown to be super durable, everyone has the same and they never spill because they can't. It's a beautiful thing.

I am trying to envision the various situations where multiple children would be given choices over a limited number of items & am having a tough time relating it to my life. I allow choices like, "Do you want to put your shoes on first or your coat", and "Do you want a snack before or after your bath". I can't think of times I allow the sort of choice you mention. I did let them pick their own cups as mentioned. I let them also pick some cups for the other kids that come over. If we have something like Popsicles & there are a few left with different colors, then we try to rotate who gets first pick. I can't keep track from one time to the next on something as specific as Popsicles, so we just rotate all the time. So kid 1 got to pick a Popsicle flavor first so kid 2 can choose to sit in the middle row or back row in the car (the youngest is always in the same spot since she is still in an installed carseat that I do not move), and then kid 3 can pick which movie we watch first.

Overall I haven't experienced this causing any upset. They all know they will get a turn to pick first next time & like I said, I give choices on things that are more specific to that one child as often as I can versus choices that impact the other kids. I only do that when I have to, like when there is only one red Popsicle left.

  • 1
    @PatrickTrentin why scary? If you give say a 10 month old a remote control car that his 3year old brother will love, he doesn't care when big brother borrows it and then big brother forgives him for knocking over every tower he built all day, because little brother is sharing so nice with him. ;)
    – threetimes
    Jul 18, 2017 at 8:56
  • 1
    It may just be that you dont' realize how simple 3 year olds really think. Now if my 3 yr old was asking for the car, I wouldn't buy that for little brother. I just buy little brother things big brother will want to use. I also have bought all my kids gifts from the baby when the new one came & they never question how a newborn got to a store to get anything nor pay for it and they do always act like the baby bought it and thank the oblivious baby for said item. I mean really, most are believing in Santa at this point easily, it's not a complex set of reasoning skills at 3.
    – threetimes
    Jul 18, 2017 at 9:22
  • 1
    And if extend this into older ages, I can buy my kids Skylanders at this age & it works. My 3yr old isn't really able to play, but if I buy her a figure, then her 10 & 7yr old brothers want to use it & will trade her to use something of their own in return. They both have their own figures too, so they didn't find it at all suspicious when all of them got figures for Easter. They just saw it as cool to have more figures. There is usually some way to work it, regardless of age & make it not something that would harbor any ill will.
    – threetimes
    Jul 18, 2017 at 9:26
  • 1
    "I am trying to envision the various situations where multiple children would be given choices over a limited number of items & am having a tough time relating it to my life." Really? It doesn't need to be a scenario where the parent explicitly says "here are some options, now you kids choose". This is what's happening every time you have multiple children and multiple items. My nephews do this over toys - two kids, a giant pile of toys, older one wants to play with whatever the younger one just picked up. They could be identical toys, it doesn't matter.
    – Jac
    Jul 18, 2017 at 18:56
  • 1
    So you do understand exactly how this scenario occurs ('multiple children would be given choices over a limited number of items') and you're just struggling to imagine kids behaving differently to your own in this common scenario, then.
    – Jac
    Jul 19, 2017 at 7:54

It seems he is more interested in having what she wants than deciding what he wants himself. Likely the color or scarcity of resource is not the issue; if there were 2 white plates, he would want the one in her hand.

When you reduce it to that and see that it is about him having her things, you can try to solve it a few ways depending on your personal parenting style.

  • Find out his preference, take it from him and give it to her. He will likely have some form of tantrum, but it may help him to understand that having been given a choice and then having someone try to take it away is very hurtful. Sometimes forcing tantrums works, sometimes it doesn't, but you'd know that better.

  • Do not give them a choice. Set their plates in front of them (being sure to mentally rotate yourself so each kid gets a well-mixed rotation of different colored plates). Obviously, this removes all choice and since choice (especially unimportant choice) allows children to experience some much needed control in their lives, they're missing out on the opportunity, but when choice breeds conflict, it may be best to inject it elsewhere.

  • Have a jar with colored beads in it, one for each plate color and an additional bead (just one) that indicates "choose any not chosen plate." Green bead gets a green plate. Yellow bead, yellow plate. Gold bead, any plate that no one else has.

  • Just say "no." She chose first, there's only one, he'll need to pick something different. Next time he can choose first. Again though, this probably isn't about the plate or the color, but taking what's hers.

Outside of the dinner moment, it may be helpful to practice choosing things like Candy Land players (he can't have hers), pictures to color, crayons (only one red), etc. This will help reinforce sharing, accepting scarcity, patiently waiting his turn, and most importantly realizing it just doesn't matter.

  • Can you explain why a kid/color combo should be avoided? I'm also curious why you think choosing colors will be easier in other settings, or do you mean enough exposure to the problem is by itself a solution?
    – user26011
    Jul 18, 2017 at 19:43
  • 1
    @notstoreboughtdirt, I clarified the kid/color combo statement. For your other question, yes; enough exposure to situations where he must accept that he cannot have what his sister has will reinforce that it doesn't really matter when the same thing can be had in different colors.
    – Forklift
    Jul 18, 2017 at 19:48
  • I'm not sure I'd give color any attention, but you suggest there is value in avoiding stagnation. Do you have some justification? I've seen a Tommy is always red, Sarah is always yellow scheme and it appeared to work.
    – user26011
    Jul 18, 2017 at 20:04
  • 1
    I was keeping with the OP's theme of having different colored plates on demand and assuming variety was a goal of theirs. Parental randomizing/ rotating was my suggestion to keep that but to make sure not to favor green for Sarah and try to rotate equally. While I agree an assigned color can work very well, it didn't seem like it would fix the underlying problem of Tommy always wanting what Sarah has. Whereas with rotation, he knows he might get it tomorrow (if he actually wants it).
    – Forklift
    Jul 18, 2017 at 20:11

Maybe don't ask? No choice. Everybody has a green or white or whatever color you want plate even, Mom and Dad, so there's no choices. Nobody is happy but nobody is sad that they don't have what they want...

  • That avoids the problem, but doesn't address it. The real issue is how to help the boy have mature responses to the conflict. Jul 24, 2017 at 16:07
  • True but if the parent is not ready to "break" his son's heart he shouldn't ask in the first place. And how come a parent is expecting a 5 year old to be "mature" about this situation? He's a kid. He's in a learning process... Jul 25, 2017 at 12:40
  • Exactly; she's asking how to help him learn to be a little more mature. (Like every parent does, every day of the child's life). Jul 28, 2017 at 0:08

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .