Sibling Smackdowns

Peacemaking in the midst of squabbling.

"Mom! Ezra keeps grabbing my new Bionicle!” Seven-year-old Jonah’s frustration was bubbling, and I could tell pretty soon my 4 year old and his big brother were gonna have a tussle. Fists were going to fly, tears were going to flow, and all manner of mayhem and discord would bust loose from the moorings of our quasi-peaceful home.

Of course I was on the phone with someone work-related, and I just was not in the mood to put the old Mama Kibosh on a fire.

“Hold on a sec,” I whisper-hissed to the children, whose dukes were already coming up for a little punching action.

Well, “hold on a sec” is about the most inane thing I could have said, but that’s what came to me in the heat of the moment. There was no chance they would pause their scuffle until Mom was off the phone. Kids rarely seem to grasp the art of synchronizing their smackdowns with convenient times for the old referees to get in the ring with them.

“I’m sorry, Brad Pitt, I simply cannot speak with you right now about your intense interest in my co-writing your biography with you. My children, it seems, are poised to commit double homicide momentarily, and I must attend to this matter immediately.”

(Well, you know, it might not have been Brad Pitt exactly on the phone, but the details are a bit fuzzy.) What I do know is the kids were not sharing their stuff, and it was making them very tense with each other. It was also making me tense with them. I’m sure you can relate. One of the heftiest challenges of parenthood is peacemaking in the midst of sibling rivalry.

I’ve come to realize, though, that the old bro-bro, sis-sis, bro-sis fighting is actually good for them in the long run. There are golden lessons to be learned in the arena of the sibling smackdown, morals only learned, in fact, as sibs engage in that classic endeavor of trying to stick it to each other.

Basically, when a scrap ensues between your kids, it’s an excellent opportunity for them to learn to compromise and how to get along better with just about everyone they encounter— now and in the future.

Of course, we can’t just let our precious progeny run amok as they attempt to maim one another on a daily basis, can we? Well, sort of. The key to maximizing the lessons learned in sibling rivalry lies in this simple, yet oh-so-hard concept: moms and dads must step out of the ring with their junior pugilists. Because as it turns out, the kiddies don’t want to commit fratricide after all; they just want some face time with you.

Pieces of Mommy Are Not Up for Grabs
Your kids basically want a piece of you, Mom and Dad, not each other, and when you jump in every time they are busting each other’s chops, you are doing them a big disservice. You’re not going to be out there in the big, bad world with them every time they get into an argument with someone. When you’re not there to scold or ask who started it, guess what? The little ankle biters will be forced to forge peace on their own.

“My mother’s favorite phrase when my brother and I were fighting was ‘If you’re going to kill each other, go do it in the basement,’” says Cheryl. It may sound a wee bit harsh, but according to experts, Cheryl’s Mom was on to something brilliant.

Kevin Leman, author of Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours (Revell), tells parents to give their kids license to go at it, just not two feet away from where Mom is on the phone or where Dad is reading a magazine on the couch. “In most cases,” he says, “when you give children permission to fight, they won’t. They merely stand and look at each other. Their fighting, for the most part, was designed to get the parents needlessly involved in their hassles.”

Aha! That little piece of wisdom was a light-bulb moment for me, to be sure. No wonder a squabble erupts just about every time I’m on the phone, when seconds earlier the tableau in the Craker casa was the picture of domestic bliss.

Anthony E. Wolf, the author of Mom, Jason’s Breathing on Me! (Ballantine) concurs: “The moment an adult becomes part of the equation, any rational, interested-in-working-on-resolutions part of the child disappears, leaving in its stead the mindless, raving version whose only interest is getting all of Mom or Dad.”

Mindless and raving sounds about right, doesn’t it? So we have to figure out how to get our parent-selves out of the equation, which is easier than it sounds. “The technique,” Wolf says, “can be boiled down to saying seven simple words: ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’” Practice being neutral, and respond to tiffs in a Switzerland-like fashion:

“Jonah flicked my arm!”

“I don’t want to hear about it.” (Of course, I don’t want to hear about it, but it secretly irritates me that the big brother seems to make it his life mission to aggravate his brother.)

“Ezra ripped my library book!”

“That sounds like a problem.” (Inside I am freaking out, but I decide to handle the little Ripper later on. Taking a deep breath I restrain myself from engagement.)

“But Mooooommmm!”

“You two can work it out by yourselves. I am going to do some laundry.”

Sounds cold, doesn’t it? But remember, Mom (and Dad), beneath your chilly exterior beats the heart of a parent who wants their child to learn how to cope when someone is bugging him. When you let your sons and daughters fight their own battles with each other, you give them life-shaping gifts. They learn how hard to shove and when to retreat. Sibs are each other’s best teachers in the area of relationships. They knock the rough edges off, smoothing the way for give and take later on in school, the workplace and the world at large. I’ll cling to this thought next time Jonah and Ezra are duking it out, and I want to waffle and cave in, getting myself in the middle. Or when they ruin my phone conversation with Brad Pitt, calling about that biography.