True story: When my kids were growing up, there was a TV in the sitting area that was an extension of our kitchen. On Saturdays, Nick and Margaret were allowed to watch cartoons for a few hours after they woke up. Two kids, one TV. My memory is that only once did I have to intervene in an argument over the television. Somehow, every Saturday morning Nick and Margaret worked out on their own -- peacefully -- what they'd watch.
Try this one. The summer that Margaret was 5 and Nick was 7, we decided to take a seven-week family vacation driving in a station wagon around the West, camping or staying in motels, all four of us in one room.
Did I mention that the car had no air-conditioning? At one point, seeing Nick lying asleep in the back, little beads of sweat all over his pink face, I thought we'd roasted him. Seven weeks in a station wagon.
We had a great time. Nick and Margaret were easy. There was arguing, but the most serious and frequent culprits weren't the children -- it was the grown-ups.
It's not that my kids never bickered. They did. What they didn't do was bombard their mom and me with constant complaining: "Nicky kicked my sticker album." "I did not, she put it down right where I was sitting." "I did not. Besides, he's not the boss of me." "Mom, she's lying." "Dad, he's going to hit me." You know, the stomach-tightening Oh, no, here they go again type of fighting that instantly replaces whatever peace you had at that moment with tension.
The secret? My wife, Mary Alice, and I had a plan that eliminated the number one cause of sibling rivalry: trying to get a parent on your side. For Nick and Margaret, the great parental courtroom, to which grievances are taken and where final judgment is made of who was right and who was wrong, was empty. The judge wasn't there.
Because of the close attachment kids have to their parents, just the presence of Mom or Dad during a fight automatically brings out in them a craving for as much parent as they can get. The moment an adult becomes part of the equation, any rational, interested-in-possibly-working-on-resolutions part of a child disappears, leaving in its stead the mindless, raving version whose only interest is getting all of Mom or Dad.
Nick and Margaret's quarrels focused on whatever they were disagreeing about: who was hogging too much of the seat, who got the slightly broken cookie, whose turn it was to use the red marker. Their fights were never about whose side their mom or I would be on. The constant sibling squabbling that can wear you down and drain any pleasure out of time spent with your children didn't exist for us.
And this meant that for the most part, being with Nick and Margaret was fun. Maybe this is a tribute to their personalities or maybe it's because of something Mary Alice and I did or didn't do as parents. But I think my kids were such a joy because of our system of dealing with rivalry -- a system that boils down to three simple rules you can use with your own kids, starting right now, to help make parenting a true pleasure.