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The Secret to Solving Sibling Squabbles

Three tips for removing yourself from your kids' battles.

This morning, my friend Denise was marveling about how productive she was yesterday after work:

“After I got home, when usually I’m totally exhausted, I made a lasagna, did two loads of laundry and prepped everything for another dinner. And I could’ve kept going—it was like I was on speed!”

“So were you?” I asked. “Was it Adderall? Did you take a nap at lunch? Stop at Dunkin’s on the way home? WHAT IS YOUR SECRET AND WHERE CAN I BUY IT?”

And do you know what it was? It was the little-known, black-market pill called HerBoysWereAtBaseballPractice.

Normally, from the second Denise walks in the door, she is assaulted by the sounds of sibling rivalry: bickering, wrestling, stomping, throwing, slamming and screaming.

It’s the same soundtrack that has been on repeat at my house over the past year—with the super-fun addition of a whining overlay, since my kids are several years younger. 

And damn it if that EP isn’t draining.

Right now, $300 noise-canceling headphones are sitting in my cart over at Bose.com. My most drool-inducing fantasy these days revolves around me wearing them, tending to my nonexistent vegetable garden or working on my nonexistent scrapbook chronicles of each year of my kids’ lives. I’m smiling contentedly to myself, blissfully unaware that a mere 10 yards away, my sons are pummeling each other with plastic hockey sticks.

In real life, that fantasy has no staying power. I’d give my hearing-impaired ecstasy three minutes, tops, before the kids call me to the bench to make a ruling and dole out punishments:

“MOM! He kicked me!”

“But he called me Poopyhead Babypants!”

“Well, he called me Lucas Poopas!”

“That’s because he stole my Beyblade and broke it! He ruins EVERYTHING!”

“No HE ruins everything!”

And altogether now: “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

And on and on, forever and ever, amen.

That was us a few months ago, anyway—before we were introduced to Dr. Tony.

Author of Mom, Jason’s Breathing On Me! The Solution to Sibling Bickering, child psychologist Anthony Wolf, Ph.D. points out that the mere presence of a parent brings out an insatiable craving in a child.

“There is a part in all children that wants not just love, nurturing, understanding, that craves not just emotional sustenance, but instead wants everything. Everything is all of you, every little bit.”

This craving explains why your toddler cries when you hold another baby. Or why your preschooler is perfectly content to amuse herself quietly—until you get on the telephone. And it exists whether or not a child has siblings. 

“This means that when siblings bicker between themselves, if a parent gets at all involved—in any way enters the equation—just by the parent’s presence, the issue that was between the siblings, whatever it was, automatically disappears,” Wolf writes. “For now there is a bigger fish to go after.

“Picture baby piranhas fighting over an uninteresting scrap; then a peacemaker enters the scene—who also happens to be the biggest, most delicious piece of meat that ever was.”

Sick of being a failed peacemaker? Here are Wolf’s three rules:

  1. Don’t take sides. If forced to intervene in a sibling squabble, be Switzerland. In other words, respond with something along the lines of, “Stop it, you two.” If instead, you go with something like, “Finn, leave your brother alone!” you will only open the floodgates for “But he started it when he…” and the 500 whiny “but, mom”s that will follow. Exception: when there is threat of real physical injury (a little bit of pain is no big deal, Wolf says).
  2. Act fast (or not at all). The time to intervene is as soon as you get even slightly irritated. Otherwise, you’ll get so angry you won’t react calmly or rationally, which isn’t good for anyone (just ask my kids).
  3. Don’t listen. Let your kids know that though you are happy to provide empathy and comfort, you have no interest in hearing the details of their arguments. So when Lucas whines, “Mommy, Finn looked at me mean,” I say, “That must’ve been unpleasant. Want a hug?” Or if Finn complains, “Mom, Lucas broke my Lego ship,” I respond, “That must be really frustrating. Want a hug?” (Exception: same as that for rule #1.) As my friend and fellow Wolf-fan Whitney says, “When we are around other parents who don't employ this tactic, I can see how their willingness to play the part of the judge in their children's dispute perpetuates not only the fighting, but the request for continued judgment as each child seeks the parent's favor.”

Personally, I’ve noticed a huge difference since we began following these three rules. Sure, the boys still fight. And, yes, my husband and I back-slide now and again (usually because we wait until we are boiling mad before intervening), but Lucas and Finn ask us to settle far fewer disagreements and seem to be getting better at working out solutions themselves.

If things continue in this vein, someday I might even be able to plant an actual plant.

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