Friday, March 8, 2013

Be The Kind of Friend You Want To Have - Building Sibling Relationships

I've been asked recently by several people how we keep peace in our home, foster a spirit of brotherhood among the boys,  handle fighting and what rules we've established in our home to manage disagreements.  (That's assuming we actually do all of those things!)

What tough questions.  You know, everyone's kids fight, argue, wrestle and agitate each other.  And, all the bickering can really wear a parent down. In my mind, there's only one thing to do: Get to the root of the problem/habit/issue and dig deep into your arsenal of instructions, because that's just what kids need - good, sound, clear instruction. I've tried nearly everything save letting my kids smoke the peace pipe - ear plugs, locking them outside and bribery topping the efforts.  All have failed, miserably.
Why do our kiddos need guidance in family relationships? Why doesn't just screaming over the chaos, "Hey kids, shape up or I'll tell your dad when he gets home!" Or, "If you guys fight one more time I'll you'll never see another Oreo for the rest of your life!" work?  Because, threats, bribery and strange consequences are short term.  Character forming guidance and age appropriate consequences are long term, but you have to be dedicated to the cause or you will be left with no other choice than to simply "put up with it."

If you have scoured the internet, checked out multiple books on parenting from the library, called every relative who raised half-way normal adults or listened to hours of cd's on how to survive the terrible two's, then we are perfect company!

I am a HUGE fan of Dr. Ray Guarendi.  He's a clinical psychologist and the father of 10 children who knows a thing or two about parenting.  He offers solid, sensible advice with a side of humor, which makes me feel like no matter how heated the arguments under my roof become, my life as a mommy is not going up in flames.  In the intro to his book, Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime, he says:

Discipline forms the very foundation of morals and character.  It is teaching done at the hands of a parent, the most loving, gentle hands most children will ever learn from.  Discipline now, and your children won't be disciplined later by the world - by people who don't love them with a fraction of your love.  Discipline is a most durable form of love.  It lasts a lifetime.

Discipline is not synonomous with punishemnt.  Discipline is responding to your children's behavior with loving concern and guidance within a set of boundaries that will help them to make better choices in the future. The wise doctor also says that,

If a parent doesn't teach qualitites such as self-control, respect for others, consideration, and ability to follow rules then the teaching task is thrust upon others: a teacher, employer, landlord, army sergeant, police officer, judge.  Who of these has the emotional attachment to your child that you do? Who will forgive and forget as many times as you will?

Our response as parents to that reality is to recognize that we have a very short amount of time with our children before they fly out the door and into the real world. Wouldn't it be nice if those years were somewhat harmonious??  I will share with you some of the approaches and philosophies we take toward the specific topic of fighting between siblings in our home.  I'm NOT claiming to be an expert here, or that my boys have been magically cured of their temptations to throw fists, tattle and tease, but they are the points from which we discipline when outbursts arise, and when applied consistently, are pretty successful.

It's a scarry truth: Your kids and mine were born with SUPER EGOS.  It's how they survive.  Without their wailing and tears, we would never know that they are hungry or poopy or gassy or teething as infants.  But, as they continue to grow and mature, we must show them how to look beyond themselves and consider the needs and feelings of others. So, if you're interested, here are my top thoughts on harmonizing the home:

First, and most importantly, you have to keep your cool.  I know, it's hard not to enter into their fights without frustration, and I fail at this weekly, but try to take a deep breathe before you head into battle.  If you lose your cool, it's never too late to apologize.  I'm sorry for losing my temper with all of you.  While I will not allow disrespectful behavior in our home, yelling at others is also not acceptable.  Please forgive me.

Iron sharpens iron as one brother sharpens another. ~ Proverbs 27:17

Secondly, each child should be given an opportunity to speak calmly about their feelings toward the situation that they are involved in.  You become a moderator of sorts - helping them to work things out together, instead of stomping off angrily with steam piping out their ears only to come back for round two minutes later.

Thirdly, during your time as "moderator" it is essential that when you are correcting a child that you help them to think about how their actions make others feel.  This will truly help them practice healthy dialog within disagreements as they grow into adulthood. You can model this for them by saying such things as:
Because I love you, I can no longer allow you to behave this way.
Yelling is disrespectful and it makes me feel sad when I hear you say such things.
I love all of you and it hurts me very much when I see that you have made someone I love cry.
If someone hurt you the way that you hurt them, what could they do to show you that they are sorry? Do you think you could do that for them?

Fourth, if a serious wrongdoing has taken place, a hurt imposed out of spite, jealousy or aggravation, the child in the wrong must be punished, must apologize to the one whom they have injured, and after having been given time to cool down, must be spoken to - short and simple - about self control and following the code of conduct within the home, which includes respect for others, and for yourself.  Separation of the offender from the rest of the crew in a space where there is nothing to do (even books to read) or to play with for at least 30 minutes typically helps the child see that it's better to try and get along than to sit in a boring room all alone.

A note on punishments - we have found it best if the punishment for serious faults is one of service to either the family or to the injured person.  That way, the child makes a connection between love, service and family and puts effort into strengthening those bonds instead of tearing them down. For example, for the family the offender can weed the garden, clean out the car, or some other task that will better the family environment. For a injured person we will often ask the offender to make their brother's bed, take over one of their chores, serve them supper mealtime and take care of his dishes etc., all being for about one week.  If the child is too young to handle these responsibilities, or to remember to do them, you must find something else concrete for them to do.  For instance, if our four year old, Henry, hurts someone he is sent to his room for 15 minutes to be alone, then at supper time I will help him serve the brother he has hurt and say kindly, "I am sorry I have hurt you today, please forgive me."  Mealtime is also a great opportunity to go around the table an have each child say something positive about everyone else as individuals.

Let brotherly love continue. ~Hebrews 13:1

Fifth, forming those character qualities of loyalty, empathy, generosity, self control and patience in your children requires due diligence.  Little sayings throughout the day, repeated over and over can be helpful reminders (annoying for the older ones, the Mr. "Know-It-All's" but they'll get over it) and over time will eventually begin to stick.  We often use the phrases, be the kind of friend you want to have or our house is a place of peace,  and all for one and one for all!  If the boys are simply squabbling over insincere things, I use the "Love a Logic" approach: "Feel free to fight as long as I can't hear you"or "That's sad.  I'd really love for you to be in our home, but since you prefer to disrupt the peace, you may leave."  They have to go behind a closed door or outside away from others to work things out.

Finally, be sure to set up very specific places where squabbling is completely unacceptable. One of those places for us is the dinner table.  Our home is very small and the kitchen is the narrowest part of the house, and it's where I spend a lot of time.  The boys know that it's a serious felony to bring bad business to my table or my kitchen.  Offenders are not allowed to have snacks, treats or any special culinary item for the day. Serious misbehavior during dinner means they leave, and are not allowed to finish supper.  That may sound like cruel and unusual punishment, but so is having to listen to their selfish bickering.
A little note on disciplining boys: boys especially need help channeling their aggression.  For our crew, physical activity such as playing sports, adventure seeking outdoors or wrestling in the living room really helps manage the friction between siblings. 

One of the most successful disciplines I've used with regards to aggression is to have my child do 20 jumping jacks, 20 push ups, and 20 sit-ups while chanting, "I will not (name infraction) throw Lincoln Logs at my brother's head ever again."  Usually the boys end up giggling, forgiving and moving on from the injury.

If all approaches toward them fail, perhaps the best approach is to realize that they just need you. You present to them.  Not you talking to them and browsing Pinterest at the same time, or doing some other activity that keeps you from making eye contact or being fully attentive. We have to be careful that all our time with our children is NOT spent correcting.  To "catch 'em doing good" and praise them for it, you have to BE PRESENT. You may not feel like doing fun things with them, or handing out treats when they've been stomping on your nerves all day, but announcing "Hey, it sounds like we're all having a bad day - let's make it better and go to the pool or get ice cream or play a game together" can really help everyone switch tracks.

Remember, as parents, no matter what we say to our children, if we do not model it to them first by our own example, they will struggle to follow our verbal instructions.  Of course Steve and I have our own disagreements.  The temptation to throw things, yell and stomp around hasn't lost it's childhood charm, but thankfully, grace (and wine) has stepped in to help us practice to the best of our ability what we preach. Here's to many years of a home filled with peace and harmony (with a side of wine)!!

How do you handle sibling rivalry & squabbles?  
Please feel free to comment with your favorite tips!


  1. Great post, great tips. I thank you very much for the wisdom and kindness in your piece today.

    God bless

  2. I am perusing your blog on my lunch hour today (you came to mine yesterday...thank you!) and I just love this post. I have three girls and two boys, the girls older, the boys younger, but I have used pushups/situps/run a mile for discipline with them. They do end up laughing a bit and they get the point...and on top of it all -- they get exercise! :)


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