Dear Claudia,

I have my three kids home with me for parts of the summer and we have been doing some things and keeping busy – but the reason I am writing is to see if you have any ideas about what I could do about their squabbling. They compete about everything, and fight for over the silliest things. It gets to be a little overwhelming.

Mother in Medfield

Dear Medfield Mom,

Children who like to compete with each other are healthy. Working with depressed, withdrawn kids has really helped me to appreciate children who fight for what they want. Fighting for what you want, however, can also cross the line into aggressiveness which is just another form of feelings gone awry. Usually, children who are seven or older begin to figure out where to draw the line between getting what they want and getting along. Except at home.

At home, getting what they want is the top priority in children’s minds. They take their siblings for granted, or they resent them, or they don’t worry what people will think about them. This translates into squabbles, free reign over expression of even the most minute injustices and sometimes, a ruthless competition to win contests games and self-made competitions.

Enter Mom. All mothers want is peace and quiet. Children’s squeals and animated conversation are lovely, but the hourly doses of complaints, whining, tattling and injustices that some siblings engage in can drive moms crazy after a full day.

I usually dismiss sibling squabbling because…well, there’s nothing much I can seem to do about it. Sometimes, however, children try to involve their parents in their ruthless quest for supremacy. They start “telling”.  I knew one child who was on such a “telling” spree that it almost became like reporting. “Mom, Jackson is peeing in the bathroom.” 

Experts tell you to discourage “telling” but sometimes, this seems to actually have the opposite effect on a child; they become even more insistent on the parent finally recognizing that their sibling is, in every way, a big mistake. 

The parent, though, is mature. So she says “stop telling; I don’t want to hear about it.” That child, especially if they are under four feet tall, will now have no outlet for their desire to demote their sibling. So they are going to go right to that sibling and start to scream at them, or hit them, or spit at them, or…you know. So I have come to realize that it is sometimes very important to take sides.

There is an art, of course, to taking sides with a child so that they will feel higher up on the rung of success, stop needing to torture their sibling, without becoming a punishing machine. Here is the sequence:

  1. The accusing child starts to “tell.” Listen carefully, or at least, pretend to.
  2. Agree with the child. Tell them “oh, that’s terrible, you’re right.”
  3. Then, tell the accuser that they are really good at knowing right from wrong; how did they get so good at it? Try to engage them in telling the story of their lives. You want them to get sidetracked by fascinating you with their ideas and memories, so that you can leave the other poor child alone.

With this strategy, the accusing child will walk away completely satisfied. When they start in again with another terrible story about what their offending sibling did, shake your head in disapproval and say “there he/she goes again.” An understanding voice will confirm your incredible solidarity with the accuser. By acting somewhat helpless, you don’t have to get involved becoming judge and jury, which can get so exhausting.

Now, of course there will be times when you will get lucky, and the “teller” will tip you off on something big. Like: “Mom, Johnny’s pouring flour all over the cans of soup.” You will undoubtedly get annoyed at Johnny, in a nice way of course, and then, the accusing child will gloat. This is good for him. I would let him have this victory. 

Parents are very interested, and often expend a lot of effort, trying to engage their children in peaceful, productive activities. The more organized, orderly and quiet these activities, the better. Children, on the other hand, often create emotional environments that like to sustain a little more tension. Think of trying to derail an Olympic champion from their sport and trying to convince them to become accountants. Simply put, nice and calm, for some kids, gets boring.

Being in the Olympics, as much as athletes may be driven to compete with every fiber of their being, is nonetheless not easy. Your children will suffer agonizing losses as they compete against one another, which will send them wailing into your arms or to their rooms. Or else they will suffer great indignities and injustices, and be at each other’s throats! Believe it or not, however, in the overall picture they are actually having fun. 

The best strategy for a mothers dealing with the incessant, intense dynamics of their children, is the one that will help her keep her sanity the best. From consequences to sweeping everybody in the car for a change of scene, what matters is whatever keeps the mom in tact. 

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