When we are lucky enough to find someone willing to take on our circus show for a few hours so my husband and I can sneak away for a beer or maybe even a full dinner, there are a few things I always mention to the babysitter. First of all, my little guy has serious FOMO, so if he’s doing the potty-dance, remind him that you can pause the game so he can go and get there in time. Secondly, he’ll try to tell you that I let him have 18 packs of fruit snacks for dinner (I don’t). And finally, my kids fight. A lot. Every day.
You do not, I tell that poor babysitter, need to intervene every time. If there’s blood or someone’s unconscious, they’ll come get you. And then the babysitter’s eyes widen in terror, and I can see that they’re wondering if they can still run for the door. But they also know that surviving the next few hours with three alive children at the end means an extra $40+ in their pocket. So usually they stay.
But that’s the reality for this crew. They fight. A LOT. But the best part is, they always make up—sometimes with our prodding, but other times on their own. And on rare occasion, I might even find a sweet apology letter in one of their rooms that another wrote in the hopes of having a friend to play with again. And then my heart melts into a puddle and I cling to that moment with everything I have, knowing that within the hour, I’ll probably hear a thud and “You’re a butt! I’m telling Mom!” again.
I’m not going to lie—it’s effing exhausting and really defeating. This past summer by the end of August, I was pretty regularly sending them outside to work out their disagreements in the yard or driveway, because I just couldn’t listen to it anymore. (And I wanted to share the love with my neighbors. You’re welcome!)
Yes, I do intervene on occasion. If it’s been constant, and I just think they all need a break from each other, I step in. If I cannot hear one more shriek or cry or whine or stomping of a foot, I send them all to their rooms to cool off. Or, of course, if they’re really about to hurt each other, I get in the middle because dental bills are expensive.
But usually it’s about whose turn it is to be Donkey Kong in Mario Kart. Or who touched my daughter’s Shopkins house. Or if my 5-year-old really was “out” in kickball. Or who ate the last donut. Or “I played store with you! Now you have to play hide and seek with me! No you didn’t play store long enough! Yes I did! It was five whole minutes! You said you’d play for 10!” Followed by “Mooooooom, So-and-So isn’t playing faaaaaaair!”
Those are the squabbles I usually try to stay out of, because my kids need to learn to work it out on their own.
And the experts agree.
“Whenever possible, don’t get involved,” KidsHealth.org says. “If you always intervene, you risk creating other problems. The kids may start expecting your help and wait for you to come to the rescue rather than learning to work out the problems on their own. There’s also the risk that you — inadvertently — make it appear to one child that another is always being ‘protected,’ which could foster even more resentment. By the same token, rescued kids may feel that they can get away with more because they’re always being ‘saved’ by a parent.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean completely ignoring them every time they fight. We do need to actually parent our kids and teach them life skills like how to communicate and work through conflict. And yes, sometimes if the fighting has escalated to the point of unkind insults or physical violence, we do have to step in. But there are ways to do that so we are still putting a lot of responsibility on our kids. For example, merely separating them until they’re calm and then letting them talk it out once emotions have died down is one option. Also, I don’t play the blame-game in my house. I always tell my kids not to say “who started it” because each of them is responsible for their own behavior.
KidsHealth.org offers other suggestions to help kids properly handle themselves when emotions run high. For example, setting up ground-rules like keeping your hands to yourselves, no cursing or name-calling, and no slamming doors means that if your kids do these things while they fight, there will be consequences. If they want to avoid such consequences, they need to remove themselves from the conflict or work it out before it gets to this level.
Other suggestions include ensuring that kids have their own personal space to play independently and have ownership of their things, to remind them that life isn’t always 100% fair (one kid may get more time with a toy, or more time with Dad that day), and if there is continuous arguing over a specific toy or activity, remove it altogether until they can work out a better plan of sharing it.
And, good news! If your kids are like mine and have the occasional (okay, daily) squabble, parenting experts say it’s actually good for them. “Sibling conflicts are generally a pretty typical and normal part of family life,” the gurus behind Love & Logic tell us. “In fact, one might argue that these conflicts are good training for life. That is, by negotiating childhood conflicts with their brothers or sisters, our kids learn valuable skills for getting along with others in the real world.”
See? So when your kids claw each other’s eyes out over who took the iPad or who gets to ride in the front seat this time, they are learning valuable life skills. Phew. I feel better.
No one will tell you that parenting kids who fight is easy—and yes, you do have to pay the babysitter more. (Here’s 1 million dollars. Please don’t call me unless someone’s in the ER.) But I guess my kids’ tendency to argue, and then make up and be friends again (and then argue again, and then be friends again, and then… well, you get the point) just means they are practicing for their grown-up future. And when they successfully navigate workplace conflicts in 20 years, they’ll be able to look at their siblings and say, “Hey, thanks for punching me in the stomach that time I ate your last Snickers bar. You really helped me learn how to negotiate and cooperate with my colleagues, even when one of us is being an asshole.”
And you will be able to sit back, put your feet up, and smile with pride, knowing that because of a few bruises and hurled insults over the years, your kids are ready for the world.