This incessant back-and-forthing may well be the most annoying part of family life. It's no coincidence that bickering escalates when a parent is within earshot-the point is to get your attention. One party then gets to play the wronged victim, getting even more attention. You can't intervene every time they fight -- in some families that would be a full-time job -- but there are things you can do to limit the bickering:
• Tell them what to do instead. Kathrine Kirk of Durham, North Carolina, teaches her 2-year-old twins, Andrew and Brian, a better way to handle squabbles over toys: "I ask the grabber, 'How do you ask nicely?' and he says, 'Can I please have a turn?' The one who has the toy usually says 'Not right now' or 'In a few minutes.' Then I show the other what to do -- either take a few deep breaths to calm down or find another toy while he waits."
• Stay out of it. Give the kids a chance to sort it out, even if it means sitting in the next room pretending you can't hear them for ten minutes. Odds are they can work it out or it'll blow over. Don't go, even when you're called, as long as you can tell the cries aren't coming from a hurt child. One clue: They're accompanied by complaints ("Moooom! She won't get off the computer!").
• Resist the urge to take sides if you weren't there. You risk feeding a cycle of a "bad kid" and a tattletale. Instead of focusing on what just happened, look at how it can be avoided next time. Ask questions that encourage the kids to sort it out: "What is it you want to have happen here? Why?"
• Blame the problem, not the kids. For fights over TV, for example, suggest that "maybe the TV needs to take a time-out."
Siblings have been shown to be on the fast track when it comes to learning about sharing and negotiating. But on a day-to-day level, woe to the child who doesn't respect his sib's stuff or turf. And what about the PlayStations and Barbie houses that must be shared?
One friend of mine color-coded everything from sippy cups to bedspreads to balls to mark each child's stuff. Another bought identical multiples of everything for her three daughters, claiming that the extra expense was worth the peace it brought, though that's not a realistic solution for everybody. What to do about the turf wars in your house:
• Identify what's shared and what isn't. Allow an older kid to set up ways to keep a younger one out of certain cherished items, such as a lockbox for a diary or a high shelf for a trading-card collection.
• Make sure physical turf is defined, too. Each child should have a place where she can put her own things, such as a bedroom. In a shared room, each child should have a designated shelf, dresser, and toy bin.
• Use an egg timer. When kids want to play with the same toy, allow them, say, ten minutes apiece, or 30 minutes if they play together. (Be sure to make the joint time longer.)
• Make them set the rules. How do they think you can handle problematic situations, like deciding which TV shows to watch?
Bossiness (by a big sib)
It's hard enough for a little guy (or girl) to have a parent or two telling him what to do all the time. To have an older kid do it, too? The injustice! Don't be surprised if you hear your little one roar "You are not the boss of me!" to a big brother or sister.
In the older child's defense, a "bossy" kid often doesn't even realize that's how she's behaving. Older siblings are often told to keep an eye on a younger child without having a very good idea of what that entails. "They get carried away in their zeal for leadership," says Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To handle it when you see your big kid getting bossy:
• Clarify what you expect. Don't just say "Watch Maddie." Give your child more specific instructions: "Show Maddie how to make towers with the Legos and be sure to give her a chance to try, too, because she needs practice to learn to do it like you do."
• Applaud nonbossiness: "I appreciate the way you were so patient showing your sister how to draw dogs and cats!"
• Don't force friendship. Some brothers and sisters get along great, while others are oil and water. With my own kids, who-plays-best-with-whom has varied according to age and personality.