We were visiting my parents last month, when my almost seven year old Darwin excitedly asked my mother, “Shelly, did you notice my new shoes?” Before she even had a chance to respond, Forest, four and a half, jumped in with an authoritative, “They’re not new.” That delightful form of argument known by all parents of elementary aged siblings ensued.
“Yes, they are!”
“No, they’re not!”
“Yes they are!”
“No, they’re not!”
- Kids, be quiet! This kind of intervention teaches kids we don’t think that what they care about is important, so it is not helpful in establishing that strong, trusting relationship we know will help us have a more joyful (not to mention cooperative) family life. It also fails to teach them the conflict resolution skills they need in order to have a happy and rewarding relationship with one another.
- Darwin, they’re not new! They’re already a month old…. Or … Forest, they’re still new! They’re only a month old. When we take sides, we add fuel to the flames of the natural rivalry inherent in the sibling relationship, thereby making it harder for our children to listen to each other and consider one another’s viewpoint. Taking sides, especially when joined with a criticism or punishment of one child, also increases children’s tendency to fight with each other and to tattle tale to get our attention.
- Parent walks away. Exiting the room has the benefit of showing kids we have confidence in their ability to work out the problems they face. It might also diminish the pattern of kids fighting to get their parents’ attention. That said, while children often show a lot more capacity for empathy than adults traditionally expect, they are definitely still learning how to take another person’s perspective and work towards a mutually satisfactory solution. Unfortunately, walking away without giving any guidance can leave kids with the highly common, natural “conflict resolution strategy” for children this age of shouting at or physically hurting each other until the weaker one gives in. We need to be careful not to let our fall back strategy be “letting kids work it out themselves,” so that we don’t inadvertently teach them that might makes right. As a younger sibling who was hit a lot by my older brother as a child, I strongly believe adults are responsible for teaching kids non-violent ways to deal with disagreement and hurt feelings.
You can also try sportscasting, in which you announce a play by play of what’s happening. In my experience, this works exceedingly well for helping toddlers step back and see their conflict from a broader perspective. It can help older kids too, though sometimes they may be annoyed at being spoken about in the third person when they are in the midst of a conflict they care about.
My go to strategy for supporting kids in a verbal disagreement is to do what I do when I am acting as a mediator for adult conflicts: Directly acknowledge each person’s perspective until they can begin to hear one another and start to consider what they want to do going forward.
On this particular day, I started by observing my kids, but determined relatively quickly that they would benefit from a more active intervention, as I had already seen them have this same disagreement about the newness (or not newness) of these shoes at least one other time. I also noted that they were repeating their words back and forth, and each child’s volume was raising with every utterance, so it didn’t seem like they were headed towards mutual understanding on their own.
I gently, but confidently looked at Darwin, and asked him, “So, Darwin, from your point of view, the shoes definitely still feel new after having them for a month. Is that right?” Both boys got quiet and looked at me. Darwin let out a relieved breath and nodded his head. I turned to look at Forest, and with open hands and an almost smile said to him, “And from your perspective, Forest, having something for a month means it’s really not new anymore.” Forest glanced at Darwin and then looked back at me. “Yeah,” he said emphatically.
It is important to address the person whose perspective you are describing instead of addressing one child and telling him about the other. “Do you feel…?” offers a great deal more respect than, “He feels…”, in part because it invites your child to correct you if your guess is off. In addition, when I say, “Forest, from your point of view the shoes are not new,” it's easier for Darwin to consider Forest's perspective than if I were to say, “Darwin, Forest thinks the shoes are not new,” because there is no pressure on Darwin to accept or understand anything. He can simply be a witness to me acknowledging Forest, and consider for himself what things might be like for his brother.
Acknowledging their different opinions helped them pause for a moment, but they still weren’t ready to think deeply about what the other was saying. They went back to arguing with heated voices.
Forest said, “So! They’re not new because they’re already a month old!”
“They are new!”
“No, they’re not!”
“Yes, they are!”
At this point I walked over and sat next to them on the floor. Right at their level now, my goal was to project confidence and friendliness as I looked at their faces and repeated the affirmations of each child’s perspective one or two more times. Each time I did, I received head nods or "Yes!" They gradually slowed down and lowered their voices, looking at me and at each other.
Darwin seemed to really be thinking now, and added, “Well, they’re not brand new if you’ve had them for a month.” I reflected this back to him, partly so he knew he was being heard, and partly because I knew that hearing Darwin’s idea in my voice might help Forest process it more easily. I continued to speak to Darwin about Darwin’s idea.
I said, “Aah – so Darwin you’re saying that new can mean a month, and brand new can mean…?” I paused, leaving the question hanging in the air. Forest’s eyes got bright, and he smiled as he finished my sentence.
“… Just a few days!” From here the conversation began to feel like grown up collaborators on a team project, as Darwin piggybacked on Forest’s idea with, “Yeah! Brand new is like you just got them yesterday.”
Forest summarized, “Yeah, yesterday or just a few days ago if they’re brand new.”
And Darwin concluded, looking at Forest with a smile, “And just new if you’ve had them for a month!”
I checked in. “Did you guys figure it out?”
Finally, after this fight-turned-positive-sibling-learning-experience, Darwin told my mom the story he’d been so excited about, and Forest listened supportively. “So Shelly, I got these shoes because I went to the car with bare feet and we didn’t notice until we were really far from Boston. So we got me new shoes at Wal-Mart!”
Are you tired of the bickering and hitting, and ready to stop your own yelling, punishing, and taking sides? Siblings Without Rivalry is an eight class parenting series that will help you reduce conflict and generate goodwill among all your children.
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