Even the noise and mess, I can cope with (just).
But the bickering! I cannot handle the bickering.
'He did this', 'She did that', 'He just hit me', 'She hit me first', 'It wasn't me', 'Why do I always get the blame?'.
It twists my melon, man. One minute all seems peace and harmony, the next: 'Waaah, Da-aaad...!'
On and on it goes. I intervene, send them to separate rooms. I shout, I scream – and make it worse.
The bickering. The soul-destroying, head-space-filling, psychological torture of children bickering.
But it never used to be like this. I used to compare my three children to the squabbling brats I'd come across in the playground.
Mine weren't like that, I'd glow with paternal pride. Mine got on like a house on fire. Mine were best mates.
How wrong I was. Now all they seem to want to do is tear each other limb-from-limb, tell tales on the other, seek attention and sympathy with an expectation of justice that I will intervene and right the perceived wrongs.
Instead, I just lose my temper. And without showing disfavouritism, I know who's to blame: the youngest.
He's nearly five now and just finding his voice, asserting his personality, trying to gain territory and impose his own version of authority.
Until recently, he was the cute little one, a dolly of a child that the older two could bend to their whim.
But he's had enough of going along with whatever his seven-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister want him to do.
He wants his own way – but without the ability to negotiate and manipulate his way into power, he resorts to stroppiness.
Is this a common problem? Do bears do their business in the woods?
I spoke to my sister-in-law about it because her two daughters – aged 14 and 12 – never seem to have a cross word between them.
"Yes, NOW," she said. "But they used to be at each other's throats, day-in, evening-out. In the end, I just let them get on with it. They had to learn to sort out their own differences – and they did. Either that, or they just grew out of it."
So this week, I decided to follow her strategy, aided by some insights by other parents from the internet.
The blog, Adventures in Parenting, had this to offer:
DON'T take sides, even though it may seem like one is clearly wrong. There is never an innocent party. Chances are, both are guilty of contributing to the fight in some way. If you defend one child, it will only produce more ill-feelings.
DO give both kids equal time-out. Separate them for a time to cool off.
DON'T let them tell you what the other person did that was wrong. Replaying the situation will only fuel their anger. You will not get a clear understanding of the conflict since their story will always be biased.
DO make them tell you what they did to contribute to their problem. Their first response is always, Nothing'. You know that cannot be true. They may continue to say they were just sitting there, minding their own business. Then you ask, 'How do you think your brother feels to see you doing your own thing and he's ignored?' 'Is it possible that he annoyed you because you were purposely ignoring him?'
DON'T over-react with some outlandish punishment like, 'If you guys fight again, you are both grounded for a month!' It's unfair and it doesn't promote a positive environment.
DO try re-enacting the situation with role playing. Have your children act like the other sibling. Talk about if each is portraying the other accurately. Let them express how it feels to be on the other end. Children are selfish and see things only from their point of view. Role-playing makes them more sympathetic to their brother/sister. This is also a fun activity!
DON'T just yell at them to stop. Take a deep breath, and try something different. Anything is better than yelling at them.
It all sounded common sensible enough so from Monday this week, I determined to follow the advice – with a one-dimensional impatient twist - to and see if it worked.
INCIDENT 1: Middle child had just completed his finest Lego work of art when the youngest decided it would look better as a pile of rubble and brought it crashing down with a swing of his little fist.
Middle Child's Reaction: He gave his brother a similar swipe, then through fat tears, the youngest reported the swipe to me.
My Reaction: I'm not interested.
Result: Ten minutes later, they had built another Lego castle together.
INCIDENT 2: Oldest had hogged the computer for a little longer than the youngest wanted so when she went for a bath, he shut down her screen and opened up his Moshi Monsters page.
Oldest Child's Reaction: "He's lost all the points I'd scored. Send him to bed?"
My Reaction: "Not interested."
Result: A few minutes later, the oldest was in her room reading a book; the youngest had gone downstairs and was watching the TV.
INCIDENT 3: Rough and tumble with the middle and youngest on the living room carpet. Middle got a little too rough and accidentally elbowed his brother in the face.
Youngest's Reaction: "Da-aad...Tom's just hit me."
My Reaction: "He didn't do it on purpose. Go away."
Result: Resumption of rough and tumble. No injuries reported.
I could go on with these incidents – at least half a dozen a day – but my reaction has stayed consistently the same and – up until the time of writing – the result has been the same.
The moment passes, they realise their complaints have no sympathetic ear to indulge them – and so they just get on with it.
I'd like to think this is good training for when they become adults for we don't have anyone to run to when our friends/boss/enemies do us wrong: we just have to get on with it.
Their bickering still gets to me, and I'd rather it didn't happen. But I'm starting to find a certain bliss in ignoring them.
That's good for me, but is it good for them? I like to think of it as character building. Mine!
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