Peace At Last!

by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.

Peace At Last!

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.

Rule #1: Keep Out Of It

Rule #1: Never intervene on one side or the other unless there’s a possibility of harm.

By harm I mean injury  — not minor pain. Let’s say you’re paying bills at the kitchen table when a high-pitched scream erupts from the next room. You stick your head in the doorway and find your 6-year-old son sitting on top of your 4-year-old daughter  — the source of the screaming  — and hitting her on the back. A typical reaction would be to single out your son and say, “Stop hitting your sister right this minute!”

In return you’ll get: “But she messed up my cars and she was pinching me.”

To which your daughter will retort: “I did not. He never lets me play with anything.”

Followed by: “I do too, but you always mess up my stuff.”

The statement “Stop hitting your sister!” adds nothing. Your son knows perfectly well that he’s not supposed to hit. All it does is put you in the middle, a place you don’t want to be because there’s no escape.

To put Rule #1 into effect, you have to make a swift decision. Do you feel that your son could seriously hurt your daughter? If not, then the intervention is simple. Just say, “The two of you  — stop it, now.”

The squabbling may continue  — often it will. If your son doesn’t immediately comply and get off your daughter, simply repeat yourself  — “The two of you, stop it!”  — and lift him off. You’ll have accomplished what’s necessary: stopping the hitting without taking sides.

But let’s say your daughter’s picked up a solid metal fire truck and is about to give her brother a backhanded bash with it. Solid metal fire trucks can cause harm. They should not be used as weapons. It’s for such situations that you want to reserve your sternest voice: “No. Put down the fire truck.” Take it out of her hand if she doesn’t let go of it right away.

Then say to her directly: “The fire truck could really hurt somebody. You cannot hit with it.”

The message is basic: Harming others is never okay. There are no reasons that make it okay. It can never be allowed to happen.

Rule #2: Act Fast

Rule #2: Act fast (or not at all).

Imagine trying to pay bills with bickering like this going on:

“That’s not the right way to do it.”

“It is too.”

“It’s not. You’re doing it wrong.”

“I am not.”

“You are too.”

“Leave me alone.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Here, let me show you how.”

“Let go!”

Such a battle can go on forever. Pretty soon you won’t be able to concentrate on what you’re doing and you’ll become increasingly irritated. By the time you speak up, it’ll be because you’re angry, and likely to scream something like “Stop it now! I am tired of the two of you fussing all the time. Can’t you play together nicely for once? I am really sick of this. I mean it. I have had it with you two. I really have had it.”

What’s more, you’ll have wasted a good ten minutes or more being angry and then trying to cool down.

The better way: Step in the moment you find yourself focusing on your kids’ disagreement and not on what you’re doing. Speak up before you have a chance to get mad. Say calmly:

“I’m working. If you can’t play quietly, I don’t want you together.”

Repeat yourself if either child tries to engage you in her squabble with her sibling:

“But Gabriel isn’t doing it right.”

“If you can’t play quietly, I don’t want you two together. I’m trying to get some work done.”

This isn’t to say that whenever siblings start to bicker you should always say something. Sometimes it may not bother you, in which case it’s best to leave well enough alone. (And sometimes, it’s even a good idea to let a spat run its course.)

Rule #3: Tune Out

Rule #3: Don’t listen to complaints  — ever, except when there’s a possibility of harm (see Rule #1).

This is a big one. The payoff is huge, and it totally changes the meaning and purpose of bickering between your kids, moving it in a direction that’s healthy and useful. The technique can be boiled down to saying seven simple words: “I don’t want to hear about it.” As in:

“Mommy, Evan called me a swear.”

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

“Daddy, Lydia’s not giving me a turn.”

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

“Mommy, Betsy pushed me.”

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

“Daddy, Ezra drooled on purpose on my sweater.”

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

The point, obviously, is that you will not get involved in their arguments. If this seems harsh, there are gentler ways to be supportive without entering into a dispute.

“Mommy, Evan called me a swear.”

“Would you like a hug?”

“Daddy, Lydia’s not giving me a turn.”

“Boy, that must be frustrating.”

“Mommy, Betsy pushed me.”

“That must have been unpleasant.”

“Daddy, Ezra drooled on purpose on my sweater.”

“Oh. That sounds like a problem.”

That is, I’m sympathetic, but whatever the problem, it’s yours and not mine. You’ll have to deal with it because I certainly won’t. I’m gently, lovingly throwing it back at you.

Just be prepared: Hugs and sympathy really aren’t what squabbling sibs are after, and they’ll keep trying to get you to take sides.

“Mommy, Evan called me a swear.”

“Would you like a hug?”

“But he called me a swear.”

“Sure you don’t want a hug?”

“You don’t understand. He’s not allowed to do that.”

“Well, that sounds like a problem.”

“You’re not listening to me.”

“Gosh, J.J., I don’t know what to say.” (This is a great phrase to have on hand.)

And then J.J. exits, returning to tackle the problem  — or not  — on his own. Which is exactly what you want.

Eliminating yourself from the sibling bickering equation will allow your kids to work out solutions on their own. When parents stay out of it, rivalry exists in its own separate realm as a problem between brother and sister, rather than being about something altogether different  — getting as much of you as possible.

  From “Mom, Jason’s Breathing on Me!” by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D. Copyright 2003 by Anthony E. Wolf. Published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.