What We Can Learn About Sibling Rivalry From Serena and Venus Williams

Rachel Bertsche

Serena and Venus Williams share a hug after Serena’s victory over her big sister on Tuesday night. (Photo: Corbis Images)

After Serena Williams beat her sister Venus on Tuesday night in a competitive three-set U.S. Open quarterfinals match, the two met at the net and embraced. Venus, the older Williams sibling, whispered to her sister: “I’m so happy for you.”

Now Serena stands to win all four Grand Slam titles this year, which would make her the first tennis player to do so in 27 years. And her biggest supporter? Her sister. “That would be a huge,” Venus said in a press conference after Tuesday’s match. “Not just for me, but for my family. Just for what it represents and how hard we have worked and where we come from. So it would be a moment for our family.”

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It was just another example of the incredible relationship between the Williams sisters: fierce competitors, but also best friends. Or, as Serena explained after her win: “Obviously we are very, very tough competitors on the court but once the match is over, the second it’s done, you know, we’re sisters, we’re roommates, and we’re all that.“

Serena Williams beat her sister in a tough three sets to advance to the U.S. Open semifinals. (Photo: Corbis Images)

With such high-stakes — and high-profile — competition, it would have been easy for Venus and Serena to bear some resentment or hostility toward each other. But there’s no indication of that. “I don’t think they’d be able to do what they do if they didn’t have an incredibly strong and solid bond between them,” Dr. Josh Sparrow, author of Understanding Sibling Rivalry: The Brazelton Way, tells Yahoo Parenting. “I don’t know what happened in that family, but I wish I did because they are amazing. I have to guess there was a whole lot of love going on that lets them take the huge risk of being on the court together.”

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Most impressive, Sparrow says, is the women’s ability to lay it all on the court, and come out smiling on the other side. “The amazing part to me is the strength of the bond necessary to withstand the competition,” he says. “The loyalty and the commitment between them has to be unconditional in order for them to be psychologically strong enough to play with each other and know they don’t have to worry what will happen to the relationship. That’s an incredible thing.”

And to those who might wonder if the Williams sisters simply know how to keep it polite in public, Sparrow says it’s highly unlikely. “What you see in the press and what they say about each other, it’s really supportive and respectful, and you can see they take care of each other but don’t infantilize each other,” he says. “They know that the other one is strong and going to be ok, and I don’t think you can fake that.”

Off the court, Venus and Serena Williams have said they are best friends. (Photo: Getty Images)

While the nature of their competition is unusual — most parents won’t see their kids facing off on one of the world’s biggest athletic stages — some level of sibling rivalry is expected in any family. Fostering a healthy relationship in spite of that is something all parents should strive for.

To start, parents should never compare their kids, says Dr. Laura Markham, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “Let’s say you are raising two girls who both love tennis. You don’t say, ‘serve like your sister does.’ You say, ‘How does your serve feel? Do you feel like you have the power you need?’” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “You want to emphasize each child’s personal best, not their success in relation to their sibling.”

In a common situation, Markham says you might have one child who is more of a superstar in one area, and another kid who is “good but not as good.” Still, parents should celebrate each sibling’s accomplishments. “If one son has the lead in the school play and one has a walk-on role, you go to opening night, and afterwards you toast to both of them. Maybe it’s, ‘To Brian, who memorized all those lines – wow! And to Alex, who really convinced the audience when you glowered at everyone like that.’” she says. “It’s about celebrating each child and their passions regardless of how good they are, and never comparing.”

Serena and Venus were all smiles after Serena beat her sister at the U.S. Open Tuesday night. (Photo: Getty Images)

Since competition will arise naturally, there’s really no need to encourage it, Sparrow says. “Instead focus on the family as a unit, and the value of that sibling relationship,” he explains. “Don’t talk about one in front of the other, pay attention to each kid when you are with that kid. And when they are together, encourage their positive relationship, and let them know you trust them to work it out when conflicts arise.”

It can be hard to avoid pitting your kids against each other, especially because siblings often try to goad their parents into it. “Many parents get drawn into the trap of comparing one to the other. Kids will try to draw you into that because they’re competitive – that’s why you have to say, ‘I’m not going there,’” Sparrow says.

Instead, try to establish a family culture of respect, civility and encouragement, so kids know they’re being supported unconditionally by both their parents and siblings. “Give your children the tools to work out conflict in a respectful way – so if they are in a bad habit of dissing each other and teasing, nip that in the bud,” Markham says. “Say, ‘In our house, we do kindness. It’s ok to be mad and to have a disagreement, every relationship has conflict, but we can tell our needs and desires and still always be respectful.’”

And when any of your kids has a big day – a swim meet or a chess match or whatever it is they are passionate about – make sure that their sibling is there to cheer them on, Markham says. “Set up a culture where there is an expectation of support,” she explains. Much like Serena and Venus, who always root for each other when they aren’t competing. “They clearly have a family culture of support that underlies everything else. They see a win for either one of them as a win for the family.”

Just because your kids may not be standing on the court Arthur Ashe Stadium anytime soon, they can still emulate the Williams sisters’ goodwill. “It’s certainly attainable,” Sparrow says “I’ve seen lots of sibling relationships were there is profound sacrifice and loyalty, as there is here. These two women are a team even though they play against each other in solo sports. They take care of each other and are giving towards each other. People don’t often think of raising their kids to be ready to do that, but I’m guessing in that family it is part of the culture.”

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