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Dealing With Sibling Rivalry
I'm at the kitchen table writing on my laptop while my ten year old son tackles and pins the six year old neighbor girl in the living room. It's a wrestling match. When the kitchen timer rings, the next round will be my seven year old daughter against the eleven year old neighbor boy. Sometimes they do tag team.
To the casual observer I may look negligent, but I'm actually quite conscious of every move. My laissez-faire style has developed from countless hours spent observing such altercations from a quietly attentive eye in the back of my head. This group of kids has always displayed an underlying concern for each other. They've earned the privilege of holding wrestling matches. Despite the many thumps, thuds and crashes, no one has ever been hurt.
The big ones somehow control their bodies so as not to hurt the little ones. It is really an amazing thing to witness . . . I'm not quite sure how they do it. They're like puppies. They feel where each person stops and starts, they sense the line between play and abuse, and they really don't want to cross it. They just need and want to get physical in their play together.
Parents are often concerned about physical interactions between kids. We feel the urge to rush in and protect the little ones. We set down all kinds of rules designed to keep things safe -- no hitting, no pushing, sometimes even no name-calling (I'll tackle that one in another article). But these rules are not necessary for the kids. They are for us, so that we feel like watchful and responsible parents. In most cases, kids do not want to hurt each other. Even when they are fighting for real, not just wrestling. They simply want to defend their own bodies, possessions and personal space.
For example, if one child grabs a toy that another child was already using, the natural reaction will be to grab it back, push the offender away, and then go back to playing. Rarely will the one who was using the toy put it down in order to pursue or punish the offender. And rarely will the offender persist more than once or twice when met with this kind of resistance.
It is only when we grownups interfere with this natural feedback loop that things can get out of control. This is because often we ask the one who was violated to use his or her words to get the toy back. Guess what, folks? This hardly ever works with young children! They are physical, not verbal. I know, we think we are teaching them to be civilized and all that. But to take away a child's natural and appropriate defense against a violation and substitute one that is usually ineffective leaves the child with no way to protect himself. At which point he becomes an enticing victim, and as he is violated again and again and not allowed to defend himself effectively he gets angry. And when we aren't looking he really wallops the other kid.
I first observed this dynamic when my daughter was about a year old. She would just grab a toy out of her 3 year old brother's hand and run away. I had taught him that under no circumstances was he to hit his sister. She totally ignored his civilized request that the toy be returned. So unless he came and got me and asked me to intervene, he lost his toy!
My rule had disempowered him and set him up to be victimized. It also made me the enforcer, and involved me in almost every one of their interactions. If I was too busy to help, he lost. When I got interrupted repeatedly from whatever I was doing to be the toy police, I lost!
It didn't take long for me to see that this was just not going to work. I was annoyed from the constant interruptions. My baby daughter was well on her way to becoming a bully. And coincidentally, right around that same time something strange happened to our hallway. It must have become a lot narrower, because suddenly it seemed impossible for them to pass each other in opposite directions without his elbow making contact with her chest and knocking her over. (and we wonder about the roots of sibling rivalry)
So I taught him that he was allowed to take back whatever she grabbed, using words accompanied by force if necessary. And he was also allowed to hold her arms down to her sides when she started hitting him. In this way balance was restored. She learned that there were unpleasant consequences to grabbing and hitting. He learned how to defend his space without becoming overly angry or aggressive. I was relieved to see that they could really work things out on their own without my constant intervention. And as an added bonus, our hallway returned to its normal size.
A key part to this strategy is that the one who is enforcing their boundaries is not allowed to use any more force than is necessary to stop the attack. So if my son were to grab the toy back and then chase her around the house hitting her over the head with it, I'd need to intervene.
When I encouraged this intuitive balancing, conditions became very conducive to forgiveness. Anger did not build up to the level of a grudge. A violation occurred, it was corrected, and they got right back to the business of playing, which was all they wanted to do in the first place.
I wonder what a child raised in this way would have to say about the current world situation? Maybe that people must not be allowed to hurt other people, violate boundaries, or threaten the safety of others. So we will use only exactly as much force as is necessary to protect ourselves and others from violation. And then as soon as possible we'll get back to the business of living together as stewards of this planet.