"No! I was using it!"
"Oh yeah? I had it first!"
(Ding! Welcome to Round 2 of Saturday at the Fights with Family Life. Last week, we observed a bout between John and Mary Jones, a fictional county couple, and learned from their mistakes with the help of a panel of experts.
(This week, we'll see how the dynamics differ when the disagreement involves children. A typical altercation has just broken out between the Jones children, Benny, 12, and Billy, 9. The object in question could be just about anything, but in this case, it's a pencil sharpener.
(And now, back to the action.)
"It doesn't matter who had it first, dummy. It's mine. Now give it back!" Benny says. "You went in my room and got it, didn't you? You're ALWAYS going in my room and taking things without asking."
"But I needed it!" Billy protests.
"Then you should have asked me!"
By now, the boys' voices are loud enough to be heard at the other end of the house.
"Hey! Settle down in there!" shouts Mary, almost absent-mindedly.
The boys hear their mother's admonition, but neither acknowledges it. Instead, Billy climbs over the couch and tries to make a run for the door--with Benny close behind him.
"Where's YOUR pencil sharpener?" Benny asks, grabbing his brother's arm. "Did you lose it again?"
"Oww! You're hurting me! Mom! Make him stop!"
"Benny!" Mary yells. "How many times have I told you not to pick on your brother?"
"I'm not picking on the little brat! I'm just. . . ."
"Don't talk back to me, young man!" Mary says sternly, standing in the doorway. "Now what's going on here?"
Let's pause for some analysis from our panel, psychologists Marvin Rofsky of Orange, Lois Abrams of the Counseling Center of Irvine, Charles Browning of Los Alamitos, Don Steckdaub of Charter Counseling in Anaheim Hills, and Rosalyn Laudati of Brea. Should Mary intervene at this point, and if so, how?
Rofsky recommends that parents stay out of their children's fights, in most cases. "Send them outside," he says. "Let them handle it themselves."
He calls this kind of fighting a "Tom & Jerry Show. It's a routine game designed to get Mom or Dad's attention. It's almost scripted."
"The biggest problem," Abrams says, "is when the parent tries to come between the two kids. You should only do that if you've gone through referee school."
Of course, if the children are really hurting each other physically, the parent must intervene for safety's sake, she says.
"But too often, parents see themselves as indispensable," Abrams says. "So they jump in, rather than allowing the children some space to resolve their own differences at their own level. Give them some time to resolve it. Otherwise, you're not allowing them to grow up and be responsible for themselves."
"Kids need to be allowed to make their own mistakes, within reason," Steckdaub says. "Fights are very normal among siblings, and it's always best, whenever possible, to let them reach their own resolution. But sometimes it can be helpful for the parent to step in and help them learn some communication skills."
Steckdaub is referring to the same fair-fighting techniques we learned last week with John and Mary's argument. Don't "attack, raise your voice, whine, complain or label the other person," Browning advises. Use "I" statements instead of "you" statements.
"That way, whoever makes the statement owns their feelings," Abrams says.
Don't mention the past or other people or issues; stick to the present and the subject at hand, our experts say. And listen without interrupting, no matter how much you disagree with what you're hearing.
Of course, those are ideals, and it's unrealistic to expect that either you or your children can stick to them 100%.
But if you must intervene to settle a dispute, try to remind the children of those guidelines. That's more effective, according to our experts, than slipping into the role of judge and trying to arbitrate all the fine points of the disagreement.
And try not to take sides. Abrams says many parents have a tendency to do just that. "Generally speaking, the oldest or biggest child gets blamed," she says.
If you've tried all this and the kids are still squabbling, Rofsky has another suggestion: "Restrict them from playing with each other until they plead and beg."
Abrams has a more elaborate plan. Order the kids to fight. But give them a schedule, and make them do it in front of one or both parents. "As soon as Mom gets home in the afternoon, for example, go into a designated room, preferably a large room instead of the hallway where these things usually happen. Mom sits down, and they go at it.
"Obviously, they're going to look at it like, 'We're not mad right now.' But give them 10 or 15 minutes in any case. Then have them fight again after dinner, and once in the morning. If they still fight on their own time, add another period, say, at 2 a.m."