Some days it seems like children can think of nothing better to do than fight. One wonders if they lie awake at night dreaming of the perfect zinger to lob at their sibling to get the fight started. Many are the parents who have despaired over their seeming inability to do anything to stop the fighting. Timeouts haven’t worked, spanking has proved fruitless, blowing their top and screaming at their children has only built resentment between children and parents, threats have made parents feel a greater sense of powerlessness as their children have called their bluff, and ignoring it is driving parents insane.
Can nothing be done?
Dr. Kevin Leman, in his book Making Your Children Mind Without Losing Yours, offers this profound insight: “Realize, first of all that when two of your children fight, they are cooperating with each other.” Not convinced? Keep reading. “It is extremely difficult to get a fight going with only one person,” writes Leman. “As the old cliché puts it, ‘It takes two to tango.’ The other person has to say just the right word, or use just the right facial expression or gesture, to get the fight going and to keep it going.”
So they’re cooperating. What can be done about it?
Leman writes, “I have found that the best way to handle fighting is to give the children what they seem to say they want. If they want to fight, let them fight.” Having said that, Leman adds, “parents… have the right to say where the children can fight and under what conditions. If the children fight, it cannot interfere with the peace and welfare of others in the home.”
So, “when two children start fighting, it is best to guide them (if they’re little, carry them) to a room elsewhere in the house, or possibly to the back yard. Give them instructions to continue fighting until they have worked out their problem. Leave them to their ‘fight.’ In most cases, when you give children permission to fight, they won’t. They merely stand and look at each other. One might say, ‘All right, you start it.’ And the other replies, ‘No, you start it.’”
“What usually happens,” Leman explains, “is that neither of them starts it because they don’t want to fight that badly. Their fighting, for the most part, was designed to get the parents needlessly involved in their hassles. The sooner parents learn to stay out of their children’s hassles the sooner they will teach their children greater responsibility and accountability.”
But what about…? (the exceptions)
It goes without saying, but this rule, like most rules, has an exception. In this case, Leman makes an exception when the physical safety of a child is involved. This rule is for verbal arguing not physical fighting.
Letting reality be the teacher. (examples)
The Supper Fight
For many families, fights seem to flare up at the supper table. If this happens, Leman says, “excuse the children and tell them to leave the table and go to another part of the house or outside. If they are more interested in name-calling and arguing than they are in eating, they may do it elsewhere… Only when they have worked out their problems and are willing to behave quietly may they rejoin the others at the table.
“Always be sure to let reality be the teacher. If [supper] is over by the time the children get back, there will no more food and no special meal for them. They will have missed their meal in order to engage in their fight. Reality has moved in to stress the need for social order and treating one another respectfully.”
The Car Fight
All parents have nearly blown a gasket (theirs not the car’s!) over fighting children in a vehicle. In many cases parents find themselves yelling or issuing exaggerated threats. Sometimes this stops the fighting, but it never strengthens the family or constructively disciplines children. What can parents do? Leman writes, “Fighting… often occurs while the family is traveling in the car. In cases like this, it’s best to pull over and stop. If possible, get out of the care and go for a short walk to allow the children to continue fighting. (They will soon stop.) If it is not safe to leave the car, simply tell the children that they can continue fighting but the car will not move until they are through.”
“The key,” Leman says, “is to be calm and not get angry yourself. If the children are on the way to participate in one of their own activities (Little League baseball or football, music lesson, and so on), it will be all the better. There will be a natural consequence for their misbehavior… If the fighting does not stop, simply have the courage to turn around and drive back home. In every case, your goal is to not encourage fighting. You want your children to see that fighting is not a good way to solve problems. You want your children to learn:
Wrapping it up, Leman reminds, “Conflict in the home, particularly among siblings, is natural. As you help your child learn to solve his conflicts in a positive way, you build his psychological muscles for dealing with the realities of life.” For more great insights on parenting, check out Leman’s book Making Your Children Mind Without Losing Yours.