Recently someone asked Dave and me why we thought our sons get along as well as they do. Was it their age range? Because we make them? Luck? (My guess.)
But Dave had a really interesting answer. He said, “I think it’s because we don’t let them fight just because we think ‘that’s what kids do.'”
I have to say that is one of the best bits of parenting wisdom I’ve heard (I married the guy for a reason).
I don’t fight a lot of battles with my sons. They can dress in whatever they want. I don’t force them to eat. And their bedroom has the potential to be declared a toxic waste area at any moment. But I have never been able to accept them being mean to each other. It’s the one thing that I will go to the mat over.
The other day I was cooking dinner when I heard something crash, Younger Son yell, “GOD!” and Older Son stomp out of the room and slam the door. I went in to see what was going on: both boys on the verge of tears and Older about to run upstairs and hide. I told him to come back and at first he wouldn’t. He really didn’t want to and for a moment I thought he would refuse. I said, “Your brother is about to cry. This isn’t something you walk away from.”
They both had a chance to tell their side of the story. It turned out that it was a misunderstanding over whose turn it was on the video game, and there was little reason to get mad in the first place.
If I had let that go, if Older had stormed upstairs and left Younger in tears, there would have been resentments and grudges growing all night (and probably into the next day). Older would have been mad that Younger wasn’t giving him a turn. Younger would have been hurt and scared that his brother threw something at him (and there was a consequence for that behavior; Older lost his playing time after all because we don’t throw things in anger).
This is only one example of the fights I’ve mediated. Maybe I don’t fight any other battles because I don’t have the energy after all being judge and jury all day. But when we work things out by talking and listening, I don’t really have to dole out punishments because they work it out themselves. Once the anger passes and they get to explain themselves they’re usually ready to move on. Mostly, they just want to be heard.
I learned from my parenting bible, “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…” that one of the most important things parents must do is avoid stereotyping their kids. It would have been a mistake if I’d stayed in the kitchen and yelled “Knock it off!” or made a snap decision about what Older did. I never want to make harmful assumptions about my kids: “Older, you’re always causing trouble. Younger, you’re too sensitive.” Kids remember those words, especially when they come from a parent.
Plus, if I just stand there and yell at them to knock it off, no one is heard. I’ve only made the situation worse and I haven’t taught anybody anything about decent behavior. In fact, I’ve taught them to just keep on yelling at each other.
It’s about putting myself in their shoes and remembering what it was like to be a kid. They want to work out solutions themselves, they don’t necessarily want some third-party coming in and arbitrarily saying “You did this – you did that – you’ll pay because blah blah blah.” How does that grownup really know what happened? And who says they’re right? Kids see through this stuff and they only resent you if you abuse your authority. But sometimes they need help to guide them through the steps of making it better, and that’s where you can really help. That’s where trust is built.
I also work hard to determine the severity of the crime before deciding on the consequence, or if there even needs to be one. Really most of the time they don’t want to see their brother punished (in fact they’re usually sticking up for the other one NOT to be). But each one needs to be heard.
Sometimes the only consequence is an apology. Being able to say “I’m sorry” is hard – for anybody – and I teach it over and over because this is the most important thing to me, not that their beds are made or they wear their snow boots because I said so. I want them to know that their brother is the most important person in their life, and they need to care for that relationship. And that the most important thing to remember is that we treat others (especially our family) with respect.
After all the talking, we never hold grudges. At least I don’t, I can’t say what’s going through their heads when they lay them on the pillow at night. But at least I know I did what I could to put it in the past.
We should never allow kids to treat each other badly in any arena because “it’s just what they do.” I don’t care if it’s hard, we need to step up and protect our children – even from each other, as the case may be. If you don’t know where to start, just listen. Calm everyone down and talk it out, simple as that. If they don’t want to talk, talk for them. They’ll be more than happy to correct you as soon as you get it wrong.
I won’t let myself get lazy or ignore bad behavior with the excuse that “kids fight” and I just don’t want to deal with it. If I take the time to show my kids that they deserve to be heard and respected, that’s how they’ll deal with other people in their lives. And hopefully, it will help steer them away from the people who don’t.