Why can't my kids just get along?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  May 29, 2009 08:17 AM

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As anyone with more than one child knows, bickering and competition between siblings is pretty much a given, no matter how old they are. When you're parenting across a wide age range, or in a very large family, those squabbles can be a near-daily occurrence.

Mary Ostyn, who blogs about her home life at Owlhaven, is an author and a homeschooling mother of 10 children, age 21 to 3, six of whom are adopted from Korea and Ethiopia. Eight of them still live at home. I asked her how she manages the inevitable squabbles.

"I usually give consequences to both children who fight, since it always takes two to fight, and it is usually hard for me to sort out who is more to blame," she told me. "In a case where blame is obvious, I'll assign that child to complete a job for the hurt child, which is a big deterrent. I also remind myself that sibling relationships are a long-term project. Most of us don't really appreciate our siblings until we are grown." Proof positive, she says, is seen in the way her oldest daughters developed a whole new appreciation for their younger brothers after some time away at college. "That gives me hope for the future with the younger ones," she says.

Mary's book, A Sane Woman's Guide to Raising a Large Family, was released this spring. "Don't be too discouraged if it seems to take years for sibling relationships to grow," she advises.

In her book, she describes some of the tactics she uses to quell disagreements and nurture relationships between her children. "Some kids have a hard time admitting their own part in a disagreement," she points out. "With a child like that, it is often more productive to ask the child to forgive than to say sorry. Saying sorry is an extremely difficult thing to do in the heat of anger."

Another tried-and-true method: Urging kids to just back off. "Disengage. Step back," Mary advises. It's "a perfect response for anyone when they're realizing a loved one is starting to lose it."

Having your older kids help out with your younger ones from time to time can enhance their relationship -- or, at least, teach the big kids a valuable lesson. "They learn to be more nurturing, and the little kids learn from the example of the bigger ones," Mary points out. "I also joke that having kids at different stages and maturity levels means that there's never a time where everyone is mad at me at once!"

You can read more of my interview with Mary at Write.Edit.Repeat., but weigh in with your wisdom here: How do you deal with squabbles and sibling rivalry in your household?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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14 comments so far...
  1. I've found the best way to avoid the squabbles and rivalry is to make sure the kids get some space from one another, and that they each get some individual, undivided attention, even if only for 5 minutes. Sure, my kids squabble sometimes, but a lot of the time I can spot it developing and head it off by separating them.

    Posted by akmom May 29, 09 09:38 AM
  1. I've found the best way to avoid the squabbles and rivalry is to make sure I have only as many kids as we can manage to give enough time to - in our case, two.

    Personally, I have no idea how one can deal with 10 children at the same time and still find enough time to pay attention to each of them, but I respect the people who can.

    Posted by HBX May 29, 09 11:14 AM
  1. Wow, HBX, way to be judgmental. I take it from your response that your two are perfect angels?

    Posted by rebecca May 29, 09 11:31 AM
  1. I don't think HBX was judgmental at all, she was absolutely correct. Don't have more kids than you can handle/take care of and you'll be all set. Sorry, it's the truth and more people should realize that. In the end, who pays? The children do.

    This post is about sibling relationships. I'd love to hear your insight into that, instead of family size. -- LMA

    Posted by E May 29, 09 12:41 PM
  1. Rebecca- I don't think HBX's comment was meant to come off as harsh and he/she never said anything about having perfect kids

    . While there are plenty of smaller families where the parents don't bother to give the kids enough attention, it is definitely more difficult for each child to get adequate, undivided attention from the parents when the family grows larger. I come from a larger family (5 kids) and have had to give up a lot because my parents needed help with my younger siblings and just did not have the time to give everyone what they needed. Both of my parents come from large families as well (12 and 8 kids), and just looking at the relationships between the siblings in each family, they have a lot of problems and there is still a lot of resentment today because many of the kids got the short end of the stick when the parents were trying to split their time between everyone.

    If you can truly manage 10 kids, that's fantastic; but if not, the kids really do end up suffering most of the time. Taking care of kids is a lot of work. Look at families like recent news makers Jon and Kate, or Brad and Angelina- they have all kinds of nannies and babysitters to help out and still the parents don't spend enough time with their kids.

    Posted by bostonian May 29, 09 12:43 PM
  1. I was one of just two kids. My bother and I fought like cats and dogs until we were adults. Thought the older we got the fewer the fights.

    Posted by Noel May 29, 09 12:45 PM
  1. Rebecca; HBX: No judgement meant on my behalf, but I have no idea how _I_ would handle 10 kids either. We only have two and they are wonderful, but far from angels. Maybe some could do it but I could not. Frankly, I think I would have a hard time handling more than say 3, but we'll stop at 2.

    Fortunately, they get along much of the time, but when they don't life is very difficult. I have no solution yet except to separate them when they don't get along. Ironically, being separated for this reason tends to make them want to play together more.

    Posted by bv May 29, 09 01:41 PM
  1. HBX was not judgmental. He/she is giving the same advice, really, as the poster above. And says "I respect the people who can" do what she/he cannot. No need to bark so loudly about it, rebecca.

    I think some of the bickering can be avoiding -- HBX and akmom both had a good idea with giving time to each. To some extent, it is a personality issue: because kids are siblings does not mean they have compatible personalities.

    Posted by jjlen May 29, 09 02:17 PM
  1. Geez bostonian poor you..."If you can truly manage 10 kids, that's fantastic; but if not, the kids really do end up suffering most of the time" - generalize much? Kids end up suffering "most of the time"? Please. I am one of 5, and my parents are from large families as well. For those of us who look positively on our large families, the interaction between siblings, and the responsibility that older siblings had for younger ones, are bonuses and things that help make some children from large families wise beyond their years and really ready for the hard work, responsibility, compassion, and self-discipline that eases the transition into adulthood.

    But back to the squabbling question - when my kids (gasp! four of them!) start to bicker relentlessly it's usually a sign to me that they are either tired, hungry, or restless/bored and that I need to address that. If one of them seems particularly cross, that one goes to his room for some down time until the black bad mood cloud passes. If we're in the car, we'll play the "who can be quiet the longest" game. A couple of my kids are competitive enough to fall for the game every time and after a while, they are either sleeping or giggling.

    Posted by Jen May 29, 09 04:14 PM
  1. Why is everyone always worried about life being 'perfect'. Learning to resolve issues with siblings develops skills that will translate into working well in a group environment. Keeping peace in your home by always taking the time to interfere and or provide an attention diversion by a parent may not be the best way to raise independent adults. Articles about college students not able to room together, graduates not able to work on teams...all reasons to let our children learn to resolve their own battles with their siblings.
    Peace may be the ultimate goal but it will be peace of mind when they are functioning adults not immediate peace and quiet!

    Posted by nottoworry May 29, 09 04:42 PM
  1. I agree with nottoworry. I really try hard not to interfere in the bickering and arguing. I usually tell the kids (3, soon to be 4) "work it out or I will work it out for you and you won't like my solution." This works unless they are super tired or hungry or cranky. In that situation, they are sent in opposite ends of the house for down time.

    I have noticed that my interference in the bickering usually ends up with one of the kids feeling that I am playing favorites. Staying out means that no one can claim that I am playing favorites and they learn problem solving/negotiating skills. My kids get on pretty well and really seem to love each other. For my family, at least, minimal interference in the sibling conflict is working.

    Posted by tracy May 30, 09 07:54 PM
  1. nottoworry: My kids do work out their differences most of the time. When they come to me for interference, my stock response is "Is anyone bleeding or in imminent danger? No? Work it out". The issue is when it devolves to squabbling, instead of productive conflict resolution. Just like most adults, though, my kids need space (to varying degrees), and are more apt to be able to work things out productively if they get some space and one-on-one attention on a regular basis.

    Posted by akmom May 31, 09 11:32 AM
  1. As the youngest child and only girl, I have a big problem with the "work it out yourself" solution that many of you are recommending. Age and gender differences can translate to more than just the occasional squabble - there easily can be a situation where one child is almost always in power and the other almost always the victim. Parents need to protect their children from bullying within their own families. Believe me, things DON'T get better when the kids get older if this was the hierarchy in childhood and the parents refused to step in and help out.

    Posted by Cordelia June 3, 09 11:33 AM
  1. what makes a child think she can only have one friend?
    and why do they feel so competitive

    Posted by ray October 15, 09 01:23 PM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. I've found the best way to avoid the squabbles and rivalry is to make sure the kids get some space from one another, and that they each get some individual, undivided attention, even if only for 5 minutes. Sure, my kids squabble sometimes, but a lot of the time I can spot it developing and head it off by separating them.

    Posted by akmom May 29, 09 09:38 AM
  1. I've found the best way to avoid the squabbles and rivalry is to make sure I have only as many kids as we can manage to give enough time to - in our case, two.

    Personally, I have no idea how one can deal with 10 children at the same time and still find enough time to pay attention to each of them, but I respect the people who can.

    Posted by HBX May 29, 09 11:14 AM
  1. Wow, HBX, way to be judgmental. I take it from your response that your two are perfect angels?

    Posted by rebecca May 29, 09 11:31 AM
  1. I don't think HBX was judgmental at all, she was absolutely correct. Don't have more kids than you can handle/take care of and you'll be all set. Sorry, it's the truth and more people should realize that. In the end, who pays? The children do.

    This post is about sibling relationships. I'd love to hear your insight into that, instead of family size. -- LMA

    Posted by E May 29, 09 12:41 PM
  1. Rebecca- I don't think HBX's comment was meant to come off as harsh and he/she never said anything about having perfect kids

    . While there are plenty of smaller families where the parents don't bother to give the kids enough attention, it is definitely more difficult for each child to get adequate, undivided attention from the parents when the family grows larger. I come from a larger family (5 kids) and have had to give up a lot because my parents needed help with my younger siblings and just did not have the time to give everyone what they needed. Both of my parents come from large families as well (12 and 8 kids), and just looking at the relationships between the siblings in each family, they have a lot of problems and there is still a lot of resentment today because many of the kids got the short end of the stick when the parents were trying to split their time between everyone.

    If you can truly manage 10 kids, that's fantastic; but if not, the kids really do end up suffering most of the time. Taking care of kids is a lot of work. Look at families like recent news makers Jon and Kate, or Brad and Angelina- they have all kinds of nannies and babysitters to help out and still the parents don't spend enough time with their kids.

    Posted by bostonian May 29, 09 12:43 PM
  1. I was one of just two kids. My bother and I fought like cats and dogs until we were adults. Thought the older we got the fewer the fights.

    Posted by Noel May 29, 09 12:45 PM
  1. Rebecca; HBX: No judgement meant on my behalf, but I have no idea how _I_ would handle 10 kids either. We only have two and they are wonderful, but far from angels. Maybe some could do it but I could not. Frankly, I think I would have a hard time handling more than say 3, but we'll stop at 2.

    Fortunately, they get along much of the time, but when they don't life is very difficult. I have no solution yet except to separate them when they don't get along. Ironically, being separated for this reason tends to make them want to play together more.

    Posted by bv May 29, 09 01:41 PM
  1. HBX was not judgmental. He/she is giving the same advice, really, as the poster above. And says "I respect the people who can" do what she/he cannot. No need to bark so loudly about it, rebecca.

    I think some of the bickering can be avoiding -- HBX and akmom both had a good idea with giving time to each. To some extent, it is a personality issue: because kids are siblings does not mean they have compatible personalities.

    Posted by jjlen May 29, 09 02:17 PM
  1. Geez bostonian poor you..."If you can truly manage 10 kids, that's fantastic; but if not, the kids really do end up suffering most of the time" - generalize much? Kids end up suffering "most of the time"? Please. I am one of 5, and my parents are from large families as well. For those of us who look positively on our large families, the interaction between siblings, and the responsibility that older siblings had for younger ones, are bonuses and things that help make some children from large families wise beyond their years and really ready for the hard work, responsibility, compassion, and self-discipline that eases the transition into adulthood.

    But back to the squabbling question - when my kids (gasp! four of them!) start to bicker relentlessly it's usually a sign to me that they are either tired, hungry, or restless/bored and that I need to address that. If one of them seems particularly cross, that one goes to his room for some down time until the black bad mood cloud passes. If we're in the car, we'll play the "who can be quiet the longest" game. A couple of my kids are competitive enough to fall for the game every time and after a while, they are either sleeping or giggling.

    Posted by Jen May 29, 09 04:14 PM
  1. Why is everyone always worried about life being 'perfect'. Learning to resolve issues with siblings develops skills that will translate into working well in a group environment. Keeping peace in your home by always taking the time to interfere and or provide an attention diversion by a parent may not be the best way to raise independent adults. Articles about college students not able to room together, graduates not able to work on teams...all reasons to let our children learn to resolve their own battles with their siblings.
    Peace may be the ultimate goal but it will be peace of mind when they are functioning adults not immediate peace and quiet!

    Posted by nottoworry May 29, 09 04:42 PM
  1. I agree with nottoworry. I really try hard not to interfere in the bickering and arguing. I usually tell the kids (3, soon to be 4) "work it out or I will work it out for you and you won't like my solution." This works unless they are super tired or hungry or cranky. In that situation, they are sent in opposite ends of the house for down time.

    I have noticed that my interference in the bickering usually ends up with one of the kids feeling that I am playing favorites. Staying out means that no one can claim that I am playing favorites and they learn problem solving/negotiating skills. My kids get on pretty well and really seem to love each other. For my family, at least, minimal interference in the sibling conflict is working.

    Posted by tracy May 30, 09 07:54 PM
  1. nottoworry: My kids do work out their differences most of the time. When they come to me for interference, my stock response is "Is anyone bleeding or in imminent danger? No? Work it out". The issue is when it devolves to squabbling, instead of productive conflict resolution. Just like most adults, though, my kids need space (to varying degrees), and are more apt to be able to work things out productively if they get some space and one-on-one attention on a regular basis.

    Posted by akmom May 31, 09 11:32 AM
  1. As the youngest child and only girl, I have a big problem with the "work it out yourself" solution that many of you are recommending. Age and gender differences can translate to more than just the occasional squabble - there easily can be a situation where one child is almost always in power and the other almost always the victim. Parents need to protect their children from bullying within their own families. Believe me, things DON'T get better when the kids get older if this was the hierarchy in childhood and the parents refused to step in and help out.

    Posted by Cordelia June 3, 09 11:33 AM
  1. what makes a child think she can only have one friend?
    and why do they feel so competitive

    Posted by ray October 15, 09 01:23 PM
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