When my kids were younger, they got along famously. Ever since my daughter turned eight and my son 12, they have been fighting constantly. If it’s not all-out war, it’s arguing or bickering. They constantly come to us to intervene, take sides, reprimand the other one, or just to complain. During the school holidays, it’s worse; they barely manage 15 minutes together before one runs back to complain, making it impossible for me to get any work done. How can we get them to end this, or manage their own fights? Should we split them up?
Ever seen a pair of puppies on the roadside? Or tiger cubs on Discovery? They’re playing, snarling, tumbling, bullying, nipping, or fighting over some piece of food, all day long. It’s the socialization process. So, first, please do not think of splitting up your kids (if you mean sending them off to boarding schools, for instance)—they need to do what they’re doing.
Though it may not be evident from the fist-fest you are witnessing every day, but a number of emotional and social processes are being put in place during this time, quite naturally: sharing of parental love and attention, developing patience, dealing with irrationality/unfairness, caring and responsibility, and other similar issues. Many corners are rounded off during the growing years, consciously as well as unconsciously. This prepares children to deal with the adult world of cooperative living, teamwork, sharing of resources, social skills, putting up with idiosyncrasies, etc.
However, as you describe, it can be trying to constantly play referee and third umpire during these friendly and not-so-friendly matches. You could try one simple device that one parent has honed to perfection: ‘Go deaf’ and ‘become invisible’ the minute they come to you for arbitration and intervention. Simply refuse to engage. Get involved only if there is a chance of serious physical damage to life, limb or property (which a fight between two boys can quickly escalate into). For bickering, name-calling, grabbing space/stuff, arguing over what to play and who said what to whom, become totally unavailable. One overwrought parent even resorted to telling her kids calmly: “Don’t tell me; come, I’ll drive you to the police station, and you can lodge your complaint there.” A few such innovative, even outlandish non-engaging replies and you can hope for them to not just stop their bickering at once, but even enjoy a giggle, with the fight fizzling out.
Many parents report that their similarly snarling-scratchy kids become sweet and supportive of each other when the parents are out of the house or when they stay over at a friend’s or relative’s place without the parents. This means that you as a parent constitute an audience to these WWF bouts and courtroom dramas. Find ways not to witness them at all—don’t keep an ear out for rising voices, and leave the room if something erupts, or play deaf/invisible.
There will be a longish phase now, of several years, when your kids will truly feel that they dislike each other deeply. Mahesh Desai describes his 12-year-old daughter shouting at her 14-year-old brother: “Thank god you’re my brother, so I can go on hating you; luckily, I’ll never ever have to marry you. I pity the poor girl who has to marry you!” However, rest assured they can’t do without each other.
(Write to Gouri Dange at firstname.lastname@example.org)