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From the Department of Cain and Abel

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Gay Uncle Brett Berk: Will the questions from parents never cease? I certainly hope not, as then I'll have to come up with my own ideas to keep this column going. So I'm thankful to reader Beth, who wrote this week:

"Dear Gunc: Please help. My kids, Jeff, 4, and Katie, 5, seem to be constantly fighting. Jeff is the one that seems to do the most damage (scratching, hitting, going for the eyeballs). But sometimes it seems as if Katie wants to start something with him. I put Jeff in time-out, which works -- when I can keep him in the chair. But I'd like to establish some kind of action plan for peace in the household. Any recommendations?"

two kids fighting

First off, I'd like to state that this kind of rivalry is normal, and some conflict is to be expected. The sibling relationship is like a marriage, only you enter into it when you're extremely young and immature, you're constantly being scrutinized and supervised, and you don't get to pick your partner. Imagine how your current relationship would go if you were hobbled with those issues (in addition to what you already face).

That said, I always posit that the best form of discipline is the kind that's PRO-active instead of RE-active, and consistent instead of ad hoc. Imagine yourself not as a volunteer firefighter, but as a professional fire-preventer. Issues often arise between siblings when kids are struggling over a limited resource, so try to have plenty of whatever you're expecting them to share (many of one kind of toy vs. one of many kinds). Spell out your expectations and repercussions in advance ("These toys are for sharing. If you can't share them appropriately, you'll have to find something else to play with today"). And for god's sake, keep your rules simple and stable. Young kids have a hard enough time figuring out how the world works without your switching it up on them. (And no Bush-style preemptive discipline. Kids need warnings and chances before a repercussion is enacted.) Finally, don't expect your kids to share everything. Give them each some stuff that's just theirs and over which they have total control.

In terms of the physical violence kids commit on their siblings, much of this is connected to being stuck in the same cage with another animal 24/7. But while your child may seem violent and evil, more often than not, their getting physical is about their not having -- or having a chance to practice -- functional alternatives. Instead of (or in addition to) reacting to these transgressions with punishments, walk them through the conflict, discuss it, and insert some options to kicking the shit out of each other. Suggest that they try using words to ask for what they want, model some appropriate sentences, and let them know that if this doesn't work after three tries, they can come and get you to help mediate. Kids need recourse. (Note: this will take about 300 tries before it works. But once they nail it, it's for life. Think long-term.) Also know that you don't have to insert yourself into every conflict. If you give your kids the tools and skills to work through things, and they do so successfully -- even if they occasionally resort to physicality -- you do not need to mete out justice in the aftermath.

Of course, if you really want the full lowdown on how all this works, you have to buy my book. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 all cover this process in amazing detail.



next: My Daughter Was Killed By a Window Cord
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Kathy C May 28, 2009, 10:45 PM

Hi Uncle Brett, Did you ever fight with your own brothers and sister? - Kathy C wants to hear about it!

Jill June 1, 2009, 3:13 PM

Brett this is awesome. You have me really thinking differently about this issue. I’m implementing your ideas, and my rugrats seem to be responding to the plan already. Only 275 times left to go.

Brett, remember your mom cracking the yard stick on the kitchen counter and everyone would scatter in all directions? This must be why you and your sibling are all so sweet and wonderful.

Jill June 1, 2009, 3:14 PM

Brett this is awesome. You have me really thinking differently about this issue. I’m implementing your ideas, and my rugrats seem to be responding to the plan already. Only 275 times left to go.

Brett, remember your mom cracking the yard stick on the kitchen counter and everyone would scatter in all directions? This must be why you and your sibling are all so sweet and wonderful.


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