Conflict is common among siblings who farm together and difficult to resolve. After Farm and Ranch Life columns on these subjects were published last September and November, many people asked for more information about dealing with competition among their children in the family farm operation and as they developed their estate plans. Siblings in family farming operations also contacted me for help.
Generally, strife among same gender siblings who work in the same agricultural operation is more serious than among those who farm separately but live near each other or between different gender siblings. But quarreling can occur among any family members who get entangled in intense competition.
Why are people involved in farming competitive? An inherited drive called the agrarian imperative inclines us to acquire the best farmland and to be the most successful agricultural producers. In other words, our genes program us to compete over opportunities to farm.
Today’s farmers, especially those in the industrialized world, are the survivors of multiple generations of selection of the fittest. Psychological research shows that the traits most highly associated with success in farming include: tolerance for adversity, willingness to take chances, capacity to work alone and to trust oneself. In short, successful farmers tend to be highly competitive.
Predecessors who were less industrious, inventive, competitive and lucky usually were less able to pass along opportunities to own land to their successors, making it harder for their children to continue an agrarian way of life.
How can children who want to farm handle competition and resentment? It takes enormous humility and character to manage sibling competition and feelings of anger and resentment.
When helping farm families settle disputes I frequently hear one sibling proclaim about another, “I’m a better farmer than he is.” Other common statements include: “He doesn’t work as hard as I do; Dad feels sorry for him;” or “Mom likes her better.”
Usually parents avoid making comparative judgments and recognize such statements fuel resentment and drive wedges in family relationships. Children are prone to draw their own comparisons anyhow, through observation of parental actions or they form their own impressions about their siblings.
Whenever a parent or child verbalizes comparisons, usually one person feels wounded emotionally, while the other feels superior. Verbalizing comparisons, even if accurate, almost always is unproductive. It’s best to keep impressions to ourselves. And our impressions might be inaccurate.
Sometimes one or both parents clearly favor one child or one child is a better farmer. It is often easier to settle family disputes when the resentments are out in the open because we all know what needs to be resolved.
Siblings who inherit this situation must be particularly understanding toward the one getting the short end of the stick. Generosity toward that person wins respect and builds personal happiness.
We must call on our better angels. We have to reach deep within ourselves to diminish our wish to compete, to recognize the strengths of our competitive siblings and to avoid hurting them even when angry.
It also takes sensitive understanding of our motives. It is easy to say or act out how we feel without considering the effects of our statements on the recipients.
It’s hard to be respectful when we want to fight, but when we follow guidelines for managing competitive urges, we can resolve differences with our siblings. In the process we develop personal character and strength to endure future episodes of conflict with family members or others.
Here are guidelines for managing competitiveness that I have found useful in farm family situations:
Eventually competition dissolves and siblings can become genuine friends who respect each other’s differences.
Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at the website www.agbehavioralhealth.com.