My sons bicker constantly, sometimes leading to all-out fights. I’ve read that I should let them resolve their own conflicts, but I’m afraid they’ll hurt each other long before they learn to get along.
Would you allow your 8-year-old to set his brother’s bedtime? How about his household duties? Would you let him decide just what exactly constitutes back talk and then apply discipline? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not his brother’s mother. And he has neither the maturity nor judgment to teach his brother how to live well.
The notion that siblings should learn to resolve their own conflicts while parents stay clear of the fray is a popular one among experts. The hope is that kids will figure out eventually through constant jockeying, sparring and free-for-all-ing how to get along. As long as parents don’t “intrude” with their rules and expectations, children will teach themselves and therefore will more readily accept what they’ve learned.
Like most trendy, “new and improved” childrearing, this idea sounds good on paper. It sure would be nice if kids could figure out how to do some of this parenting stuff on their own. Indeed, if siblings are close enough in age and size, and if they truly want to assault, and if you can weather the chaos, then maybe Rocky and Bruno can negotiate some peace, or at least an uneasy truce.
Alas, in the day-to-day world of parenting, paper ideas can get shredded by real kids. First, I would guess that your 8-year-old is bigger, stronger, smarter and overall just a tougher opponent than his little brother. Why would he feel compelled to “work something out” that surrenders his rights and desires? Seeking to control is a drive that begins young. It’s not likely a dominant sibling will negotiate away his status. Then, too, do you want to passively stand by while the boys torment, name call, hit and in general mistreat each other in the name of conflict resolution? Not only will the “weaker” child routinely end up losing, but a whole lot of mutual meanness will be unleashed by both. Kids are wonderfully resilient and forgiving, but a relentless battering of words or fists can take its toll on the strongest of sibling bonds.
Third, a parent’s duty is to protect. When we allow brothers and sisters to blast their way to a solution — notice I didn’t say resolution — we give up our responsibility to shield them from hurt, especially that caused by family members. Unrestrained permission to settle differences can be a license for filial terrorism.
As mother, you set the rules for negotiation. Conflict resolution can only occur within the context for your parameters: no hitting, no name calling, no head butting, no gouging, no soap in eyes, whatever. In my experience, kids are much quicker to work out their disagreements when they know the rules of the game. Of course, if they break the rules, there are consequences to be enforced by you.
I am not suggesting that you jump in at every squeak and squabble. For the little stuff, sometimes a simple “work it out peacefully or you’ll both sit” can spur an attitude of cooperation. After all, the worst of enemies will ally themselves in the face of a common adversary.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist, speaker and author
of You’re a Better Parent Than You Think! and
Back to the Family.