Friday, August 31, 2012

The Art of Siblings

On the Himself album, the comedian Bill Cosby tells us, “A person with one child does not have to deal with ‘Willyoustoptouchingme?’” With only one child, you don’t have to referee arguments, and you don’t have to judge who is to blame for breaking things.  With multiple children you’re going to deal with sibling rivalry.  With more than one, you get regressive behaviors, teasing, fighting, accusations, property rights, and even issues of favoritism and fairness.  Once when our daughter was a pre-schooler, she came to us in secret, and reported that her brother was being bad, because he’d accused her of being a “tattle tale.”  Because we value positive relationships, conflict resolution skills, and having a purposeful family, we’ve trained our kids how to have functional relationships with their siblings, mostly through conflict resolution.
     From the beginning, we worked hard to discipline destructive behaviors, and reward positive behaviors between the children.  Any form of negative physical behavior, including hitting, kicking, pinching, biting, shoving, poking and hair pulling would earn an immediate time-out.  When our toddlers struggled with biting, we did change tactics, and started administrating a squirt of spicy Tabasco sauce instead of a time-out.  It shut down the biting much faster, and all of our kids enjoy spicy foods now, so we must not have damaged them with this approach.  As they got older we also would not tolerate damaging verbal behavior, such as name calling and teasing.  Sharing, helping each other, compromise, communication and words of encouragement were rewarded with a treat or extra privileges.
With that said, it’s important to recognize that conflict is messy.  It is emotional, and sometimes loud, and rarely occurs at a convenient time.  Conflict resolution requires the patience of a saint, the creativity of a genius, and the time commitment of a monk. Above all things, good conflict resolution requires time for communication and understanding.  While we didn’t allow destructive verbal statements, we often had loud, heated, tearful, and chaotic conversations.  Some parents are afraid of the volume, emotion, and disorganization inherent in a conflict.  To the detriment of their family, these parents will do anything to avoid conflicts, including avoiding an obvious problem, distracting a conversation, or disciplining children for having a heated discussion.  On the other side of the spectrum, other parents let the kids go too far into name calling and other damaging behaviors, because they don’t have clear rules around “clean” fighting, or are too tired.  Parents may even yell at their kids out of frustration, instead of resolving the problem.  When we facilitate discussions over a conflict, we try to strike a balance by cutting off damaging behaviors, but allowing a certain level of rudeness (like interruptions) to get out all of the emotion and discover the root problems.  It may seem chaotic, but if one child’s statements are perceived as inaccurate or inciting by the other, you may have to allow an interruption to vent emotion.  They may even have to talk over top of each other, which adds to the chaos.  Because we value people in our family, we don’t allow talk that degrades or demeans others, like name calling or threats. 
As much as possible, we try to give everyone their turn to speak uninterrupted in the heat of the argument, but sometimes we have to let one child have a long turn speaking, then ask the other for their side.  After everyone’s said their piece, we ask a few questions of our own to clarify, and do our best to repeat each child’s position, to make sure we truly understand what’s going on. Only then do we start making suggestions for resolution, or at the last resort, make judgments and give out discipline as needed.  Since we value the successful resolution of conflict, we take the time to learn what the conflict is really about, and that is messy, time consuming, and emotional.
Understanding is the key to conflict resolution.  If you clearly understand why someone is having a conflict with you, then you are half way toward finding a resolution to the conflict.  If, instead, you are inciting emotional responses with name calling, hurtful accusations, or ultimatums, you’ll shut down the flow of information, and worsen the conflict.  For this reason, we taught our children to make “When you…, it makes me feel like…” statements, which lead to the real issue, instead of statements like “you are…” or “you always…,” which add fuel to the argument instead of moving toward better understanding.  They might say, “When you tap on the table, it makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable,” which makes the offending activity emotionally neutral, but shares information about the effect it’s having, and leads toward a positive discussion.  If, however, they were to say, “You are always tapping on the table,” they would only get an emotional response, without conveying any useful information.  If one child can verbalize what the other is feeling, then all that is needed to close the conflict are some creative ideas around how to share something or stop a behavior.
A phrase that we often use around our house is, “Is this important to you?” which means, “Are you willing to put up a big fight for this, because it really matters to you, or is it really a small issue?”  When two of our kids are in conflict, we’ll often ask, “Is this important to you,” to see if one of the kids is really heavily invested in their position.  If one of the kids is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal, and the other is more lackadaisical, then the first child gets their way, because we know how important it is to them.  We limit the number of things that can be “important” to each child, so they don’t abuse this method, and find that often neither child is too heavily vested in their side of the argument.  One of our boys is very laid back, and doesn’t have many opinions or passions.  Very few things are truly important to him, so he only insists something is important to him about twice each year.  But when he states that something is truly important to him, he almost always gets his way, because he makes so few demands the rest of the time.
One notable conflict that took several weeks to discuss and resolve was over the kid’s bedroom arrangements.  We had purchased our house specifically because it had a large bedroom that they boys could share until they left for college or a career.  However, our introverted son decided that he needed more space, and asked to move into his own room.  The younger, extroverted son didn’t want to sleep alone, and our daughter wanted the queen size bed from the guest room, since she was nearly six feet tall.  All of their desires and motivations were clouded with emotion, and took several chaotic and tearful discussions over the dinner table to finally identify. In the end, we moved the queen sized bed out of the very small guest room, and moved the introvert in, so he could have the space that he needed to be healthy.  We moved our daughter and the queen sized bed into the large bedroom, with the agreement that whenever we had overnight guests, she would give up her bed and sleep on one of the boy’s floors.  For our extroverted son, we remodeled the girl’s old room to be more masculine, had a discussion about his need to sacrifice for his brother’s need for privacy, and put some new family routines in place to make sure he wasn’t feeling lonely in his new room.
We tried to use each new conflict to teach conflict resolution skills.  When one child clearly wins, and the other clearly looses, that’s not a positive resolution.  We didn’t want to teach our kids to always win, because that’s not fair, and isn’t what they’ll face in the real world as adults.  We also didn’t want them to always acquiesce just to keep the peace or avoid other consequences, because caving in leads to dangerously suppressed emotions, and sometimes you have to fight for what’s important, regardless of the cost.  Instead, we taught them how to find creative solutions to their conflicts. Most conflicts over possessions and privileges can be resolved by either taking turns, or setting boundaries.  If the younger child keeps “touching my stuff,” then the older one needs a special, protected place to keep a few precious items from the younger sibling.  If the toy or opportunity should be shared, like rides down the slide, then they should take turns.  During the grade school years, we had to keep several lists and schedules of whose turn it was to pick out the week’s flavor of ice cream at the store, sitting in the best car seat, and other special privileges and choices.  Sometimes, conflicts are a good way to teach character to children.  When resolving arguments, we often taught our children about generosity, kindness, or patience by telling them that we expected them to exercise a new character quality instead of “winning” the argument.  Many arguments ended by clarifying that one child was demonstrating bad character; such as being mean, rude, or selfish, and insisting that they apologize.  More often than not, everyone in the argument ended out owing someone else an apology, and a hug.
We wanted our kids to practice their conflict resolution skills, so we made our parental judgments much worse than what the kids could come up with on their own.  Whenever we broke up a simple argument, we didn’t work too hard to judge the situation accurately, assign blame, and discipline the instigator.  Instead, we just disciplined both of them.  We’d always make suggestions about how they might resolve it themselves, but if they didn’t like our suggestions, we’d just go ahead and discipline both of them.  If the conflict was over sharing a toy, we’d just take it away from both of them.  If it was over a place like a blanket fort or “touching me,” we’d send them to separate time-out corners. This seemed to work even better as they aged, and we could restrict them from electronics like video games.  The only exception we made was when an older child was clearly taking advantage of their situation, by bluffing, knowing they had less to lose if both were disciplined, or using advanced logic and verbal jabs to goad the younger sibling into reacting physically.  In that case, we would discipline the older child because it was clear that they were instigating the fight, even if they didn’t throw the first punch.  We find that our boys are now masterful negotiators over video game sharing, because if they involve us, we just restrict them from the games for a week. When our teens and pre-teens brought us a conflict, we would make several suggestions for resolving it, and follow up with, “you’ll want to work this out by yourselves, because if I have to resolve it, you won’t like my solution.”  In the teen years, we often suggested solutions, but rarely had to force a resolution on the kids.  They work through their issues as a team, and have come up with some surprisingly creative ideas on their own. 
At one point, we discovered that our laundry was being overwhelmed with dirty towels, and after doing some detective work, discovered that the kids were using a fresh towel every day or bathing, instead of hanging them up to dry and re-use.  It turned out that the kid’s bathroom only had enough towel bar space for two bath towels, and there were three children, who had grown into the need for using full sized towels.  Apparently there was also some deep requirement that the towels not touch each other while hanging in the bathroom.  While this was a creative solution on the kid’s part, it wasn’t practical, so we gave them a new guideline about towel reuse, and let them work through the conflict over their scarce towel bar resources.  We made a few suggestions, like letting the towels overlap (eew!), let them know that they probably wouldn’t like any solution we came up with as parents, and turned them loose on the problem.  Eventually, they asked for us to install a towel hook on the back of the boy’s bedroom door, where one of the boys hung his towel to dry, safe from inter-towel contact.  We installed an inexpensive hook on the back of the door, which probably paid for itself in a couple of week’s worth of laundry detergent, electricity, and water.
     For especially bitter conflicts, we would take the time to reinforce our family values, and the importance of being able to resolve conflicts with other people.  We’d review the need for our family to work as a team, and how much we valued the family’s ability to achieve goals together, and have a shared purpose.  In the pre-teen years, we also introduced the idea that they would need each other as adults.  We spoke about the need to have reliable family to lean on, the fact that we parents would eventually leave them alone in the world, and that when we were gone, they would only have each other.  In preparation for that time, they needed to learn how to work out differences between them in fair and sustainable ways.  This was always a sobering conversation, but it gave them a vision for maintaining functional sibling relationships as adults.

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