(S)He Started It!

(S)He Started It!

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Nothing is more aggravating, discouraging, and guaranteed to set your nerves on total edge than listening to your children fight with each other. Nothing can make you question your parenting skills (and your sanity) more than the constant bickering or worse. Because we love the children so much and recognize their individual strengths and talents, we can’t believe they treat each other with such disrespect and outright cruelty. “Why?” we ask them, “Why can’t you be nice?” Or at the very least, “Why can’t you just leave each other alone?” (Because leaving each other alone is no fun?)

Siblings fight, argue, pester, annoy, mock and criticize each other. They just do. Why? One cause is boredom. When children are actively engaged and productive, there is usually peace. When the activities end, the situation goes downhill. Ever notice how children in the back seat of the car (bored) start touching each other and poking each other (laughing) and whacking each other until eventually one starts crying? Or else they complain, tattle, and whine about each other. They are bored. Nothing else to do and besides, it’s fun. It gets the competitive juices flowing and look at the attention they get from Mom. Watch her get upset and start yelling.

Here are a few things I’ve learned. Give children positive attention when things are going well. We tend to take things for granted when peace reigns, and only react to negative situations. Children should get attention for behaving well, rather than badly. They should get praise and rewards for playing together cooperatively.

Try to ignore the bickering. Without your attention, it might just peter out. And never try to get to the bottom of an argument. There is no “bottom.” The story will be twisted and convoluted until you have no idea who or what “started it.” If you take sides, you have rewarded the ‘winner’ and angered and hurt the ‘loser,’ setting the stage for resentment and a resumption of hostilities in the near future. Try to leave them alone and hope that eventually they will either settle it themselves or lose interest and drop the whole thing.

If a child is being physically hurt, of course you have to step in, but again, don’t be the judge. The older, stronger child may have hurt his or her younger sibling, but you don’t know what the provocation was. Just send them to separate spaces and insist they stay there. Then resume ignoring them. They will be deprived of the attention they are always seeking. Time away from each other may work wonders. When they get really sick of being alone, they may even be willing to play cooperatively again.

Easier said than done, I know. Good luck.

Marianne Riess is the former head of the Putnam Indian Field School in Greenwich, CT. She has 40 years of experience in working with young children.

Marianne’s other columns here…