June 11, 2005

Bickering Resolved

On a recent trip to the bookstore, I had a whole bunch of bookstore gift certificates to burn, but I couldn't decide what to buy. It's really hard to splurge on current affairs books when I can find them all in the library. It's also really hard to buy fiction books (except from certain authors I collect religiously like Brust or Donaldson) just because I have a shelf absolutely packed with unread fiction, probably upwards of 100 books. I'm really a compulsive book buyer, and I'm trying to stop.

So anyway, after going all over the bookstore, I finally settled on the parenting and child care section and immediately spent about 50 bucks, no problem at all. Of the books I bought, I think my favorite author is Anthony Wolf, and the first book of his that I read is called "Mom, Jason's Breathing on Me!" (The Solution to Sibling Bickering). Sibling bickering is a pretty big problem around the house, so I was hoping to read something enlightening.

I did. What a great book. I recognized a few of the things we're doing right, and I also recognized about a zillion things that we (mostly I) are doing wrong. Basically, Wolf's rule is that you ignore it unless it annoys you, and if it does, you separate the siblings. You don't worry about fairness (except in the long run). You just act quickly, decisively and consistently. A corollary of this is that you ignore all tattles unless serious harm is involved (like a potential trip to the hospital sort of harm).

Tattles are considered inadmissable evidence (hearsay) in the Supreme Court of the Parent, and so basically, if a kid comes in and says another kid hit them, your response is to sympathize but no more. "Do you need a hug?" has become popular around the house, and the kids quickly picked up a good retort, "You're just saying that because it's in that stupid book!" When we started this, unfortunately for Sarah, it was just before Justin smacked her good on the arm out in the yard. She came in immediately to tattle, and she couldn't BEEEE LEEEEEVE Justin wasn't going to get into trouble.

She called us every name in the book, and we just ignored it. It wasn't that difficult. One of the great things about this book is that it explains the logic behind the tattle and the logic behind the proper response. That makes the proper response a LOT easier (for me, anyway). Did someone spill something in the kitchen? Don't bother trying to get to the bottom of who did it. Unless they confess immediately, you will only create more problems than you solve by starting an inquisition (my usual mistake). Just make them all clean it up and explain that you're disappointed that it happened. The result is that the guilty party will feel guilty about it and the mess will get cleaned up, and what more can you hope for?

Maybe the others are mad at having to clean up a mess they didn't create, but it all works out fairly in the long run. Eventually, the kids come to accept that as long as you make an effort to be fair in the long run (that's the biggest adjustment to our kids who love to get hypercritical and offended if we aren't being "fair" at the tiniest little level). Wolf is big on distinguishing between "baby self" and "mature self", and he successfully explains a lot of the kids behavior, in my opinion, with a fairly simple philosophy. He deals with a lot of other common problems using the same themes, so we're giving his philosophy a try. It's very exciting for us, and I think the kids will soon realize that it's pretty cool for them, too, but there will be an adjustment period because they have to (Yoda)unlearn what they have learned(/Yoda).

Posted by Observer at June 11, 2005 07:08 PM
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Hrm. So when Isabel comes in saying "Harry hit me!!!" and I think to myself, "well, she probably deserved it!" does that make me a good parent, a bad parent, or half-n-half?

Posted by: Humbaba on June 11, 2005 07:21 PM

According to Wolf, that's the right move. He advises against responding to tattles, because you are taking sides. You are also robbing your kids of the opportunity (and thus, later, the ability) to resolve situations themselves. Even if one is beating up on the other, as long as there is no serious harm involved, you're better off staying out of it.

When you intervene, you are just giving the bully one more reason to pick on the victim because the bully is mad the victim always has the parent on his/her side. Differential treatment is at the core of a lot of sibling resentment, both in childhood and later in life.

However, Wolf's philosophy isn't an excuse to be lazy or anything. It's just that he advises you to interact a LOT with your kids during neutral times so they won't crave your attention so much that they resort to schemes like tattling or purposefully getting in trouble, pestering, etc. Make sure they understand they have your unconditional love at all times, even if you don't have time for them at the moment.

He also says don't punish and don't reward. Rewards just encourage materialistic kids unless it is something abstract (which they probably won't appreciate as much as you do). Punishment doesn't usually change behavior. They have to decide to change it themselves. Consequences are ok and can be briefly explained ("I can't let you stay home alone because you haven't shown you can be trusted."), but no lectures (and that hits home for me, Mr. Lecture-Head).

Cody, our 11-year-old lawyer, has already started testing us, making up stuff to see how we respond ("Justin owes me a quarter and won't pay me!"). He's trying to figure out how to rig the system to his benefit. I predict when he grows up and plays online RPG's, he'll be a total min-maxer.

Posted by: Observer on June 11, 2005 08:00 PM

I put that Anthony Wolf book on reserve at the library just now.

Heh, we're #81 of 135 waiting for David McCullough's "1776". Gonna be a few months at least. I think we startd out in 92nd place a few weeks ago.

Posted by: Humbaba on June 12, 2005 12:53 PM

He's got at least two other similar books that we're going through. Repeats much of the same philosophy but applies it to different situations. It's really amazing how spot-on some of his imagined dialogues are between parent and child.

Not two days after we both finished reading the book and started ignoring tattles, Sarah's conversation with us about how could we not get Justin in trouble for hitting her, we must not care, we must not love her, we must want her to get hurt all the time, etc. ... man, it was RIGHT out of the book, chapter and verse. And we ignored it, just like the book said, offered sympathy and support but then ignored continued whining.

The kids' behavior is still evolving in response to our changes. I think right now they're still in a mode of trying to figure out what they can get away with. For example, Sarah has taken to flipping off the boys when we're not around, and we ignore their tattles just like we ignore hers. It will probably escalate for a while until they realize that they want to set their own limits for the sake of their own sanity and well-being, because we won't step in and take sides.

We'll see how long it takes for them to come to that realization. And whether it works.

Posted by: Observer on June 12, 2005 03:46 PM

Lord of the Flies in action.

Take some nannycam video.

Posted by: Humbaba on June 12, 2005 05:26 PM

Well? How's it going after two weeks?

Posted by: mainfold on June 26, 2005 08:57 PM

So far, so good. It's actually harder than I thought to change my own habits. I mean, dealing with the bickering is not hard. That was a welcome change, and so far, we are happier. I don't know how the kids are taking it.

What's harder is Wolf's other advice, which is to avoid any kind of prolonged argument/lecture situation. The kids are just really, really good at pushing our buttons, and they are pros at extending fights, throwing major tantrums bound to get attention, etc. We are slowly but surely turning into more decisive, more concise parents (really, I'm the one who needed more work in that area).

I am also making an effort to find opportunities to give things to the kids for no particular reason, just so they know that they get stuff, not just material things, but time and attention, too, just for being part of the family. We're trying to get out of the reward/punish game, too, and that's tough. There are exceptions, and it is hard to draw the line quickly and decisively every time.

Posted by: Observer on June 26, 2005 11:18 PM