Some thoughts on bickering children . . .

Not that My Kids Have Ever Done This . . .

I’m writing about children bickering because other parents assure me that it is a common problem. I wouldn’t know, since my kids have never bickered (in the last two minutes. Mainly because no two are within 10 miles of each other). So, I’ve been told that I should write something by parents who tell me their kids bicker (my wife actually told me to write this). But like I said, my kids don’t ever do this.

Okay, so it is a pretty common “problem.” (I put those little quote marks around the word problem to indicate to you that I might possibly say something witty about bickering, and somehow make it not a “problem.”) That’s right, it’s not a problem! It’s an opportunity! It is an opportunity to feel frustrated, to feel helpless, to feel like you can’t remember why kids were a good idea and to generally feel pretty inept at any task that involves parenting.

So yes, it is pretty common. And yes, my kids do to. And yes, you will feel frustrated, helpless and reasonably inept. But there are some things you can do. Let me say upfront that anything you do in response to bickering won’t solve bickering and keep your kids from ever doing it again, and they won’t prevent you from ever feeling frustrated again. But they will help, maybe a little. So let’s take a look.

First, (especially moms) keep in mind that the number one reason kids bicker is to pull you in. Kids love to have their parents in on their conflict. Oddly, even negative attention is attention, so children will fight in front of parents in an attempt to involve them. I know that this is somewhat counter-intuitive, because clearly kids don’t believe that their parents will respond positively to their fighting. None-the-less they will often needlessly fight, even create a fight, to pull you in.

What is the advantage for them? Power. Control. Bickering has such a huge impact on parents that it gives the child a sense of power, in addition to the aforementioned attention. So, if they are trying to pull you in, shouldn’t you stay out? I wish the guidelines were that straight-forward. (We could end the article here, and go back to working out our projected March Madness Brackets.)

Responding to bickering is as much artwork as it is clear principles. Never-the-less, here are a few guidelines to help you survive. In addition to the guidelines I’ll suggest a few key statements that you can put on a 3 x 5 card or on your phone or written on your hand (old school).

First, if you can, do try to stay out. Learning to work things out is part of childhood relationships. Providing that no one is getting physical injured and no property is being destroyed, try “I’ll be you two can work this out.”   A more motivating response can be, “I’ll bet you two can work this out, and remember, if you can’t, I will, and I can promise that neither of you will like my solution.”

A second level response would be to use the above statement, but perhaps make a suggestion or two, then tell them they have three minutes to solve it. For example, “I think the two of you can probably figure out something you both want to watch. I’ll give you three minutes before I get involved, which neither of you will like. Why don’t you try Gilligan’s Island reruns, everyone likes those.”

If none of the above is effective, and you’ve run out of patience, or if immediate intervention is required (in cases where physical altercations have broken out) try the following: decisively separate the kids to isolated spots and tell them to cool down and come back when they are ready to “demonstrate respect to each other.” If one or both comes back too quickly (i.e. they are still angry or upset) send them back again. When they both return go back to trying to give them a couple minutes to solve it, following the proceeds above.

Finally, if none of the above brings about resolution, explain briefly that you will need to solve the problem, and do so in such a manner that both kids suffer some consequence from the bickering. Essentially make the consequence more costly than the reward of attention and power that the bickering achieved.

A couple of don’ts. Don’t try this in a moving car. If kids are fighting in the car a great technique is to find a safe place to pull over, do so without a word, put the car in park and pull out a book to read. (I used to carry a book for such a time). When the kids realize something is up, simply say, “I can’t operate the vehicle safely with you fighting, so I’ll wait till you are done.” Kids do not like just sitting in a car, this works really well. Second, don’t officiate or referee or try to figure out what is fair in a given situation. I encourage parents to not worry about fairness, but instead to promise their kids they will treat them with respect and justice. Fairness is an elusive dynamic, and depends almost entirely on one’s point of view. Justice however is more easily achieved and can be given to everyone. Last – don’t parent in anger. If you are angry, take five minutes yourself to de-escalate and then dive in. Don’t lose heart, they do eventually grow up! (And have kids of their own and then you get to watch them deal with it.)

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