Reader Question: We have a boy, 6, and a girl, 9, who fight constantly about everything under the sun. My husband and I have a good marriage. We hardly ever have a serious disagreement about anything, so it’s hard for us to understand what has led to our kids’ inability to get along. In any case, their fighting has become very draining, especially to me because I homeschool and am with the children much more than is my husband. When they fight, I generally try to figure out which of them was in the wrong and make him or her apologize. My husband thinks that’s not helping. What do you think?
A much wiser man than I once said, “Forced apologies are morally meaningless.” In your situation, does the child who apologizes truly think he or she was in the wrong? No. When siblings have conflict, each of them thinks he/she has been the victim of some insult or offense from the other. It takes much more maturity and wisdom than is possessed by 6- and 9-year-old children to see things from another person’s point of view. Is the apology, therefore, sincere? No. I suppose an argument could be made that it is “good practice,” but that’s idealistic thinking. The fact is that these forced apologies are probably making matters worse.
What has led to your children’s inability to get along is their innate self-centeredness. You and your husband have obviously modeled what a properly loving relationship looks (and sounds) like. But as I’ve pointed out many times in this column and elsewhere, parenting is not deterministic. That is the Freudian myth. As parents of prior generations understood, “every child has a mind of his own.” Good parenting does not guarantee a good outcome (and vice versa). Neither of your children are interested in a good relationship. They each want their own way. You and your husband want a good relationship. Each of you is willing to sacrifice self-interest to that end. It will be more than a few years before your kids are able to do the same – to put relationship above self – with one another or anyone else.
When parents “referee” sibling conflicts, things always go from bad to worse. For this reason, I nearly always recommend that parents not engage in trying to determine who did “it,” who did what to whom, who said what, who looked at the other sibling a certain way, etc. Hold both children equally accountable for disrupting the peace of the household. The first disruption of any given day earns both kids a good amount of time in their respective rooms (or separate rooms if they share space). That’s the warning shot. The second infraction earns them confinement for the remainder of the day – without electronic entertainment of any sort – and early bedtime.
In my experience, consistent enforcement of this consequence-based program will begin to show good results within a couple of weeks and cure within a couple of months (albeit occasional enforcement may still be necessary for up to six months). The key is dispassion on your part. The emotional consequences of the problem must belong to the children, and the children alone.