It’s important to understand how kids think. Their conflict often becomes a way of manipulating parents. Quarreling and fighting provide an opportunity for both children to capture adult attention. It has been written, “Some children had rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.” Toward this end, a pair of obnoxious kids can tacitly agree to bug their parents until they get a response—even if it is an angry reaction.
One father told me about the time his son and his nephew began to argue and then beat each other with their fists. Both fathers were nearby and decided to let the fight run its natural course. During the first lull in the action, one of the boys glanced sideways toward the passive men and said, “Isn’t anybody going to stop us before we get hurt?!” The fight, you see, was something neither boy wanted. Their violent combat was directly related to the presence of the two adults and would have taken a different form if the boys had been alone. Children will “hook” their parents’ attention and intervention in this way.
Believe it or not, this form of sibling rivalry is easiest to control. The parents must simply render the behavior unprofitable to each participant. I would recommend that you review the problem (for example, a morning full of bickering) with the children and then say, “Now, listen carefully. If the two of you want to pick on each other and make yourselves miserable, then be my guests [assuming there is a fairly equal balance of power between them]. Go outside and argue until you’re exhausted. But it’s not going to occur under my feet anymore. It’s over! And you know that I mean business when I make that kind of statement. Do we understand each other?”
Having made the boundaries clear, I would act decisively the instant either child returned to his bickering in my presence. If the children had separate bedrooms, I would confine one child to each room for at least thirty minutes of complete boredom without radio, computer, or television. Or I would assign one to clean the garage and the other to mow the lawn. Or I would make them both take an unscheduled nap. My purpose would be to make them believe me the next time I asked for peace and tranquility.
It is simply not necessary to permit children to destroy the joy of living. And what is most surprising, children are the happiest when their parents enforce reasonable limits with love and dignity. But there is nothing simple when it comes to raising children. Obviously, it is no job for cowards.
From The Strong-Willed Child by Dr. James Dobson, chapter 5, “Bitter Brothers and Surly Sisters.”
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