Rules- vs Negotiation-Based Approaches to Sibling Rivalry

I saw a facebook meme floating around some time ago that said, “When you have 1 kid, you become a parent. When you have 2 kids, you become a referee.”

This blog post is meant to thoroughly refute this idea. When your two or more kids fight, instead of becoming a Referee, you should become a Negotiator.

Let me start with a story. My daughter was sitting on the couch, in between my husband and myself. She was using a stool to climb up and down the couch. She however was done with the stool and sitting. My son (4) stood on the stool right where she was sitting. My daughter (2) hit my son. My husband yelled at my daughter, “No hitting!” This cycle of hitting and yelling kept repeating. I was sitting closer to my daughter and could see the world from her perspective better. When my son stood on the stool, she had no way to get off of the couch. When I brought this up, we asked my son to get off of the stool, and my daughter got off of the couch–and stopped hitting.

If you are a referee, you pick sides. There are rules: Specific behaviors to abide by. You pick a particular behavior that is prohibited, usually something like hitting, and when you see it, you admonish or punish the violator. In this case, the child that was hitting got yelled at.

A negotiations-based approach looks at the underlying need of each child. In this approach, you turn a temporary blind eye to the negative behaviors (fighting, throwing, hitting). Then you clarify each child’s viewpoint and help them to come up with a better solution than the hitting/fighting/screaming they were previously engaged in.  This calm, empathetic negotiation happens within about 30-60 seconds and is full of intense emotions.

Let’s look at another example. This is how it looks and feels. Emotions run high. Negotiators have to keep their cool in intense situations:

My daughter had set up a breakfast plate on an end table. My son wanted to eat his breakfast under the end table. My son was then wigging out that my daughter had her plate on top of the table, by waving his hands in front of her face and jumping up and down.

It’s super annoying to deal with a child acting like this. I have to imagine it is the natural reaction of the overwhelming majority of parents to punish a child acting like this. Or, at least, to yell. I’ve been there. I had been doing a lot of soul searching though, and I took a deep breath and did the following:

I picked my son up and moved him to the couch. To my somewhat surprise, he didn’t try to threaten his sister. (We’ve been using this approach for a while: Maybe he knew I was about to help him.) I said to him, “We have a problem here. You want to eat your breakfast under the table. Your sister wants to put her plate on top of the table. What is a good solution to this?”

Just in saying this, he said, “I want to build a fort!” He wanted to use the table to lay a blanket across the top. His sister’s plate was in the way.

What his actual need was surfaced. Had I said something like, “Why don’t you sit somewhere else?” or “Eat at the [dining room] table!” or “It doesn’t matter if her food is there!”, I would have never gotten to the real need. None of these solutions would have satisfied what was going on in his head and he would have continued to act out. Knowing that the issue was the fort, I was able to assure him he could do it after breakfast. Calm was restored to our house.

The steps to follow with children and this approach are

  1. Make sure you are calm. One big deep breath does miracles to the functions of your brain, turning off the angry parts and turning on the calm parts–neuroscience confirms this.
  2. Verbally state everything you see: The situation, the children’s behavior, their emotions.
  3. Work on problem solving in an age appropriate way.

About 100% of the time when I come in to a situation, I find that though I think I know the full situation, I actually don’t. Verbally stating everything you see must be the first step of engagement. In doing this, the children themselves will often fill in the gaps in your knowledge of what actually happened.

I find verbally stating everything you see also sets the tone for the rest of the negotiation. It’s as if you are saying, “Alright, time out. Let’s look at what is going on here.” The children, knowing you are about to understand and help them, which you may have already done many times before, learn to calm down when you set this tone.

Verbally stating what you see/hear also helps when you cannot be in the same room as them. If something breaks out and you cannot leave what you are doing, you can say, loudly, everything you can hear or see: “Sounds like someone is upset! I heard something crash. How can we solve this?” This works better than, “Don’t make me come up there!” “Stop making your sister cry!”

A lot of people will say that by turning a temporary blind eye to hitting or other negative behaviors, you aren’t teaching the child forcefully enough that hitting is wrong. I have been finding that since employing this approach consistently, hitting, yelling, screaming, and general wigging out have markedly decreased between my children. They don’t need to hit, yell, or growl to get what they want. They are consistently having it modeled for them and consistently practicing coming up with mutually agreeable solutions. Instead of being told what behavior to not do, they are developing a skill set of how to handle a life problem.

It is perfectly acceptable to tell a child, “No hitting,” or “Hitting isn’t a good solution to this problem.” These statements are matter-of-fact and impart information. It is also acceptable and even ideal to physically restrain or move a child, if possible, if they are repeatedly hitting, while they get control over their bodies.

What doesn’t help is to punish a child for the negative behavior. Punishment is not a teacher. Punishment physically hurts the child; isolates them socially; takes away a privilege; or other. Punishment inflames the situation further and makes whatever side ruled against angry and resentful. It should go without saying that trying to teach a child to not hit by hitting is not productive. But neither is making them simply hurt in some other way. Families who employ this rules-based approach are constantly fighting in a never ending cycle, and I mean never ending. The children are fighting because they genuinely feel slighted and thus get defensive. Then an adult comes in and slights them more. The only way to stop this cycle is to stop slighting, which means, don’t punish but instead teach.

If you prefer to still think of conflict resolution as a matter of justice, at least accept that all sides get to tell their story, as if they are in court, before doling out punishment. However, beware that when you decide to be judge and jury, with one side the winner and the other the loser, it is in the children’s interest to learn to lie. When you walk into the room, the children, knowing someone is about to get punished, start accusing each other of starting it first, denying their own behavior, and so on. And, because of the likelihood of lying, you need to be an all knowing presence to get to the bottom of “who was wrong.” You will never be this.

One of the great things about the negotiation approach is that it can be used even if you are not this impossible all knowing presence. If you come in on a scene, you can take the deep breath then start describing what you see: A table is turned over, it looks like two children are fighting over one toy, one looks especially upset and wronged. Knowing you’ll look for a solution rather than blame, the children are far more likely to fill in the missing puzzle pieces for you, admitting their own actions.

I have been told before that I have to explain to my children what might happen if they hit someone–or model it directly by hitting them back. The fact is most of negative behavior is a stage that eventually passes. When the child is capable of abstract thought, such explanations or, better yet, two-way discussions, might be fruitful. Otherwise, such a lecture is wildly age inappropriate.

I don’t know many adults who have a problem with hitting. Adults usually can self regulate, because they are biologically and psychologically capable of containing their violence. And, when an adult does have a problem, you never hear that the person came from a home with too much love, or even one where there was a lack of lectures. They almost always come from abusive homes. Therapists repeatedly report that people who came from loving, supportive homes are capable of emotional regulation, and those who didn’t often are not.

That you shouldn’t hit to get your way is not a life lesson that needs literally beat into a person. However, while most adults do not resort to fisticuffs to resolve conflict, they do resort to other negative behaviors during conflict. Adults yell at each other, play games, shirk work, evade discussion, lie, ridicule, criticize, diminish each other’s thoughts and feelings, and so on. Imagine if these adults had parents who worked on negotiation skills throughout their entire childhood and how much better they might be at all of their relationships, not least of all, their marriage.

If you study child development, you will find children go through many stages. These stages bring with them a host of bizarre behavior, and a lot of the behavior is negative. As they grow, children all of a sudden start acting out. As infants, during a leap, they cry a lot. As toddlers, they have meltdowns. As preschoolers, they hit and throw. The more you understand this, the less you see the need to hit or punish the child during an inevitable stage. As science uncovers more about child development, almost all negative behaviors come down to a natural stage, an unstated need, or other understandable cause.

One of the main goals of my blog is to show how all children go through these leaps and they bring with them annoying behavior. These behaviors are a matter of growth–growth related to their developing mind–not something to punish or beat out of a child. They will pass. The secondary behaviors you create by punishing your child for being human are the behaviors that will last, as entrenched defense mechanisms in their subconscious. It is the ultimate “growth mindset” to realize that these “misbehaviors” are normal and need tolerated (and contained when necessary) while you impart other, better life skills unto your child.

Many parenting books describe how children “encode” their messages. They don’t know how to communicate what they want, and it comes out in bizarre ways. Sometimes that way is hitting or other traditionally punish worthy behaviors. When children start acting out, let us see it as a signal that they have an unmet need. Figuring out that exact need can be tricky. Science keeps helping us understand more and more.

Yes, hitting is wrong and no matter how provoked, one shouldn’t do it–but this is something a child must learn bit by bit over time. So, forget “wrong.” Forget blame. Look for solutions.

I wonder how much the philosophy of altruism plays a role in the rules-based paradigm. So many might say, “Well they need to learn they can’t always get what they want!” Or, “If they hit, they should learn they won’t get their own way!” To the latter, I say: Yes, they do need to learn this, but they won’t learn it from punishment. It’s the former I want to address: That children shouldn’t “always get what they want.” This is the authentic definition of altruism: That you should hurt, not that you serve others.

How many authors do I read that say, as if obvious, that a child “should not always get what they want.” The most recent argument I heard for this is that a child will grow up to live in a world with disease, tornadoes, car accidents, etc., so they need to learn to not get their own way. But, children already do live in a world with these unfortunate things. A tornado affects the adults and children in the house. Children won’t “always get their own way,” because of limited resources or unfortunate events. Why artificially create it such that they purposely do not get what they want above and beyond what life will already naturally dictate? In negotiations, it won’t always come out that each child gets what they want. Earlier I described the story about my son wanting to build the fort. He couldn’t build it right away. He had to wait, and he did so calmly, after I listened and understood his concern. My daughter, just yesterday of the day I am writing this, asked me to go to the moon. My son one time wanted me to take the steering wheel off of the car and give it to him. Don’t worry, parents, children will not “always get their own way.”

Why are we so afraid of their self interest? What children want is rarely pure indulgence. It often comes down to a need to create or be independent. They don’t want someone to steal the crayons they are using to draw with or be in the way of their fort building or other. Children can be remarkably ingenious in coming up with solutions to their own problems. Let’s unleash this power.

Children model what we do, not what we say. By modeling caring about their self-interest, you are creating children who will care about others self-interest. Imagine a doctor who is treating a patient, who is complaining about pain, and the doctor says, “You know, we don’t always get our own way. You just need to deal with the pain.” By caring about the child’s problems, you are creating children who look for solutions to life problems. Do you really want children who say “No” to problems–the way parents think it is so important to say “No” to children–or to say “Yes”?

The results of this approach have been remarkable. Dr. Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training, which advocates negotiation to resolve conflict, boasts that teenage rebellion, thought previously to be just a natural stage, is absent in homes that practice his teachings. I have also been finding that using a negotiation-based approach to conflict has reduced the otherwise ubiquitous, seemingly inevitable squabbles among young children. At my facebook page, The Observant Mom, I tell many stories (#ObservantMomStory) of how lovely children can be in resolving conflict. A calm and happy home is absolutely possible, even at very young ages. I hope you come “like” my page to see more for yourself.

The skill set needed to employ this approach is intense. Every morning when I wake up, I have to ask myself: Am I going to be present today as a parent? Will I be the calm, loving presence my children so desperately need? In addition to being Comforter-in-Chief to some big, “negative” emotions, I now ask myself: Am I ready to be a Negotiator today? Am I willing to show love to my children even when they are acting unlovable, while I coach them through the monumental task that is becoming human?

A recent trip to the doctor’s office shows how intense it can be. I took three children to an appointment for my newborn. The baby got shots and there was an emergency among the nursing staff, so we were in the office for an ungodly long time, about 45 minutes. My son, ever interested in the baby, kept getting in his face. My older son and daughter got upset when people bumped into him. The baby needs me to be by his side at all times. I scanned for needs the whole time. I talked the whole time. “It looks like John wants to see the baby get an examination. How can we accommodate that” “It looks like Emily doesn’t like people in her personal space. How can we fix that” Though many children scream all throughout appointments, we made it out of the appointment a fairly calm and happy family.

My children, though they squabble at least a few times per day, really love each other’s company. They may say, “I have so much fun with you!” or “I love you so much!” to each other. They walk hand in hand while out in public often. This is an investment, and one that is worth it. I hope as they get older they start to take over the negotiation process themselves.

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