It was a hot and humid summer day and my kids were huddled around a Trivial Pursuit board, still cool from a long swim. I was pouring some iced tea in the kitchen and we were enjoying a relaxing family day. As I clinked the ice cubes into the glasses, I heard a voice call out from the living room, “you cheater,” followed by “I didn’t cheat.” Fifteen minutes ago, the kids were all happily swimming, giggling, and laughing, but now I heard their voices becoming louder. Should I go in and put an end to the drama before it escalates or should I let it take its course and have them figure it out themselves? Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to do. On one hand, you want kids to learn to take care of things themselves, find their own solutions, and stand up for themselves, but if you can put out a fire before it begins, isn’t that optimal?
It might not be, according to psychologist Dr. Michael Brady, author of “When Things Get Crazy With Your Teen.”
“If a parent is always stepping in, there will be no end to that — you’re teaching the child that you will always solve their problems in life, and that is a disaster, and we’re doing more of that than ever before,” he says.
Siblings are a child’s first friend, and those early and close relationships are the basis through which kids learn to navigate the world and participate in future relationships. Here are some ways to help your kids learn to work out their own disagreements:
Establish house rules. These should be clear and consistent. For example, hitting, pushing, and bad language are not allowed, ever. Let your children know that from the time they are old enough to understand and follow through with age-appropriate consequences each and every time, whether the behavior is spotted among siblings or friends.
Be aware of a child’s limitations. If one of your children is easily flustered when hungry or tired (and what child isn’t), prepare ahead and make sure that she is fed and well-rested.
Hold the judgment. No one likes to be judged or told what they did is wrong. Try to avoid, “You should have,” or “why didn’t you” and use “what else could you have done instead,” or “would you change anything next time?”
Find teachable moments. When your children are not fighting or disagreeing, take every opportunity to discuss how people can disagree peacefully. This can be when your children are talking about disagreements in school or you are watching similar behavior on a television show. And try to always model this behavior yourself.
Don’t take sides. Try to make each child feel validated, but try to stay out of choosing who is wrong. Of course, if hitting or bad language is involved, correct your child’s behavior but avoid making one child the “bad one.”
Avoid your tendency to go in and stop the behavior immediately. Give the kids a chance to work things out themselves. You might be surprised by how they learn to negotiate and see each other’s perspectives.
I ended up staying in the kitchen to finish up the drinks. By the time it was my turn, the kids were laughing again and had straightened out their misunderstanding. I realized that not getting involved in minor disagreements between my kids not only teaches them independence and fosters peacefulness for them, but it lets me off the hook, gives me time and space to not always have to step in, and also gives me peace of mind knowing that they can handle it on their own.
Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Sullivan also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Babbl
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