Saturday, February 18, 2017

Siblings (and the art of leaving well enough alone)

All right, finally picking up the sibling topic again. And moving from the more theoretical side--building communities, developing family mindset, leading children in valuing the whole over the individual self--to the actual practical side of how to deal with children as they're tearing each other's throats out.

Every single day.

Multiple times every single day.

Because let's make one thing very, very clear here: my kids fight. A lot. Yes, they're darling and sweet and tell each other they love each other and beg to tuck each other in bed and delight in finding each other's favorite foods in the grocery store, and overall, they have a wonderful, intensely bonded relationship. But they also bicker and squabble and cry and argue and fight all. the. time.

A la Reasons My Kid is Crying, I could probably singlehandedly keep alive a fairly entertaining feed of Things My Children Have Fought Over. We'd have your run-of-the-mill sibling stuff like who gets which toy when and who gets to go first. We'd keep it fresh and interesting with whose bike parking place is whose and who gets to sit on my left leg instead of my right. It would even be strangely endearing with who gets to kiss and tuck the other in bed. But, let's be real here, it would mostly be populated with pictures of one of them holding a door closed for dear life while screaming like they're dying, while the other attempts to pry it open while screaming like they're dying. There would be variations on that theme of course--cabinet doors, closet doors, bathroom doors, the occasional light switch thrown in for good measure--but they'd all be mundane pieces of home furnishing that no one had any interest in until suddenly someone decided to open (or close) them, thereby neatly cutting the seams that had, theretofore, held the world together.

So basically, my children do a lot of fighting. (Especially about doors.)

But you know what? Maddening as it is, despite the strength it drains from me and the minutes--hours--it takes of my day (nothing says Time Well Spent like negotiating a peace treaty between Those In Favor Of Closing the Cabinet and Those In Favor Of Opening It!), I'm okay with it. It's par for the course when people live in close proximity with each other. Siblings fight. Kids in general fight. People fight. There's a huge, huge difference between systematic dysfunction in a relationship and basic territory squabbles. Conflict is inevitable. Especially when you're young, and new to the world, and still learning conflict solving skills. Conflict isn't a sign of a problem. It's a sign of being alive, with others. The goal of raising siblings shouldn't be no conflict, but rather learning to navigate conflict with skill, compassion, and eventually, wisdom.

So I think the first thing you have to do with sibling conflict is to simply let it be. Expect it, be okay with it. Know that for the most part, it doesn't reflect on you, your parenting, or your kids' prospects in life.

And also, in addition to being okay with it, sometimes it's best to intentionally stay out of it.

I am generally pretty frustrated, in both the parenting and teaching arenas, by the level of adult interference that is expected when caring for children. We live in a world where adults seem to be expected to keep children from ever coming to harm--and harm is often defined very broadly. If we can prevent the skinned knee, bumped head, hurt feelings, angry quarrel, we are expected to do so, because we seem to think it would be lazy and irresponsible--not to mention unkind--to do otherwise. And when children do come to harm, even to very slight harm, we tend to blame the adult in charge of the situation.

But children learn by doing. Conflicts are messy and conflicts are uncomfortable, and yes, sometimes conflicts hurt, but they are also places to practice vital life skills: compromising with others, standing up for oneself, saying sorry, making amends, learning the consequences for your actions. The only way to learn these things--really learn them, not just know them as theoretically good ideas--is to do them, and to do them often. Children learn best, as anyone who works with them knows, by (endless) repetition.

And usually, they learn faster, and the lessons stick better, if they're allowed to learn them by themselves.

Over Christmas, while we were on vacation, I read the book Parenting Without Borders by Christine Gross-Loh. I have mixed feelings about it, but mostly positive ones, and one of her points in particular has stuck with me and solidified much of what I think about the importance of allowing children room to struggle. We tend to think only in terms of what we are protecting our children from, she says, and when we think of it that way it is hard to justify anything but the most careful attentive watchfulness and support. But whenever we protect our children from something, we are also depriving them of something, and that is something we ought always take into consideration, and decide which risk is greater. She noted this in the context of allowing children physical space and freedom to go places and make decisions, but I think it applies to conflict solving as well.

It's been my experience, working with children, both my own offspring and my students, that when adults rush quickly to solve children's conflicts--even in the interest of teaching empathy and fairness, children tend to take on a passive, victim mentality. Children learn quickly that adults care about fair, and so it becomes important to present themselves as being treated unfairly. I've found that quickly solving children's problems for them results in children mostly caring about making sure the adult hears their side and responds accordingly. In fact, I've found a lot less empathy and care about others, even when the adult moderator is striving for a fair, compassionate response. And more than that, I've found it leads to helplessness. Children who have never struggled to tie a shoe simply expect an adult to do it for them. Children who have never struggled to solve a conflict--to really come to a solution with the other children involved, without adult moderation--simply expect an adult to do that for them too.

I am not saying adults ought to be absent, or that we should never step in. But I do think we tend to step in way too quickly and too often, when we don't need to, and when by doing so we are preventing our kids from learning the lessons we are trying to teach.

I'm going to give a few examples of scenarios where I see adult interference usually doing more harm than good, but first, let me make a couple of things clear:

First, I am not talking about scenarios where there is previous dysfunction. I am assuming a set of siblings who basically like each other, have decent morals, and want to get along. I would take a different approach for siblings who really, honestly dislike each other, or for children with a history of poor (or absent) conflict solving skills. In any conflict situation, for any people anywhere, the strongest motivator is a desire to remain in relationship. If that is not present, it is difficult for any kind of self-motivated conflict solving to take place. Conflict resolution is still important, and ought to be taught, but in those cases, it likely won't teach itself.

Second, I am not talking about bullying. I am not talking about a situation where one child, or group of children, routinely uses power in a frightening, intimidating way to enforce their will on another child, or group of children. And while I think we often tend to see bullying, or fear it, when it isn't actually present, there are definitely instances where one child is abusing another one, and allowing that to happen unchecked is irresponsible and unkind to all parties involved.

And finally, by advocating a hands-off approach to conflict, I am not advocating not paying attention or not making any attempts to teach. I talk about kindness, and selflessness, and fairness, and generosity, and community, all the time, in school and at home. I give the kids in my care as many tools as I can so that they will be able to negotiate their conflicts when those conflicts arise. And while it may look like I'm completely ignoring my kids while they're fighting, I always have one ear opened to what's going on. Leaving fights alone isn't clueless ignorance--it's an intentional allowing of struggle with the end goal of learning, instead of simply trying to prevent hurt bodies or feelings. By stepping back, on purpose, I can try to gauge for myself whether or not learning is happening, and if it's not, I can take a more active part in the learning process.

So, with that out of the way, here are the arenas I generally believe in letting alone:

1.) Scenarios that aren't actual conflicts: I can't tell you how many times I have seen an adult rush to solve a problem, when the children in question didn't even see a problem there. Often it's because of perceived unfairness (one child took another's toy, a game seems rigged, one child is making all the decisions, etc), and there is a genuine desire to teach social skills and prevent anyone being taken advantage of. And again, I'm not saying it isn't important to teach fairness and kindness. But often, the kids involved--all of them--simply don't care. Sometimes the baby wanted to move on to another toy, sometimes the child making the decisions is the desired leader. Stepping in prematurely, I've found, tends to breed resentment on the part of the "aggressor" (who is usually not acting out of malice or even selfishness), and encourages the "victim" to be much quicker to take offense, and to look for inequalities and complain about them, knowing it will result in positive adult attention. Also, stepping in before a problem is a problem deprives children of the opportunity to respond personally to conflict. If you think about it, many adult conflicts aren't issues of hard-and-fast social rules being violated. Some are, but the vast majority simply have to do with our personal quirks and the things that annoy us as people. We learn to handle conflict well when we're able to listen to others' quirks and offenses and respond with compassion, empathy, and our own boundaries. Allowing children to decide for themselves when they are bothered helps them become more aware both of themselves and of others around them. Also, I've found that if children expect that they will have to engage in conflict with each other, instead of complaining and having an adult take over, they are more likely to pick their battles carefully and think about what really bothers them enough to make it worth stopping their play to problem-solve.

2.) Negotiations: Secretly, I love it when children lock themselves into a situation that requires negotiation, because I think there are few better arenas for learning what it means to weigh two sets of desires and make a decision based on both of them. This is second nature to adults (most of the time!), but for children, it can actually be very difficult to consider another's perspective, no matter how justified or fair. Children see the world through a very narrow lens--their own--and when they negotiate, they are forced to see through a different set of eyes and consider a different viewpoint. Even if the motive for negotiation is completely selfish (continuing the game, for instance, or getting an annoying sister to quit screeching), it forces practice in being unselfish, and practice, if it doesn't always make perfect, certainly makes easier. When adults step in and negotiate for children, I've found that children tend to focus solely on making their own viewpoint heard, and making it louder, and more convincing, than the other side. Also, when children believe solving a problem is their own responsibility, they have stronger motivation to negotiate well. Overall, most children value fairness, and, when left mostly alone, tend to seek it. Without the constant positive attention of having an adult rush to side with them, they seek the positive attention that comes from interacting well with each other. Children like to play together, and tend to quickly stop playing a game if they perceive it as unfair. If they know that, by being unfair, they will lose half their playmates, they have strong motivation to be as fair as they can.

3.) Natural consequences:
Sometimes, the outcome of a conflict isn't always pleasant to everyone. Games dissolve and playmates leave, toys are taken back and tears are shed. When children play selfishly, and don't care to solve conflicts with others in mind, they lose the moment of friendship and cooperation and play. Children don't like being bossed around. They don't like being whined at or tattled on. They don't want to play with a friend who contradicts everything or refuses to share or insists that everything be a particular way. Sometimes conflicts over these things mean the game is done. Someone--or everyone--walks out, and their contribution to the play is over, and no one is happy. Rejection happens, and it hurts. This is a fine line to walk, because children, even good ones who mean well, can be cruel and sometimes very unforgiving. I've seen kids rejected--for a long time--after one bad experience because "she's bossy" or "he always ruins it". And here is where it is important to teach kids to be kind. To talk about how people change, and how one bad choice, or two, or three, or several, doesn't make a bad person. To give tools for dealing with it next time, and assuming there will be a next time. To explain special needs and younger ages and the importance of hospitality. But when rejection occurs because a child is selfish or mean, or when a game falls apart because conflict was handled poorly, sometimes it's best to let it be, and allow the children to sit in that messy, uncomfortable moment. That's hard to do, and this is a place where I often see adults intervene--sometimes for the first time in the entire conflict--to admonish everyone, collectively, for not playing nicely, and to insist that the game continue as it was, with everyone included and equal. And I've rarely ever seen this actually result in deeper, better friendships. Usually it just breeds resentment on the part of the children who finally drew the boundary, and frustration on the part of the offender, who finds himself included but no longer trusted or liked. In order for children to be able to solve conflicts independently, they have to be able to set boundaries and draw lines, without adults erasing them. They have to be able to sit outside of boundaries other children have drawn and reflect on what they must change to be invited back in. When a relationship is good to begin with, children want peace. Especially with siblings, where there may be only one or two playmate options, loss of a playmate means loss of play altogether. Left to themselves, and allowed to the experience the consequences of conflict done badly, they tend to figure out a way to exist in peace and harmony--and therefore play--again. Sometimes they need coaching in that direction ("I wonder what would happen if you said sorry," or "Maybe she'll be willing to share that toy if you're willing to trade one of yours"), but sometimes, they simply need to experience what they're missing, and then it becomes worth some compromise or humility to get it back again.

4.) The pecking order.
 Regardless of whether we like it or not--and often, we don't--any group of children has a hierarchy of sorts. Sometimes it's a simple matter of older and younger, and sometimes it's more complex--in a group of fifteen third-graders, there are leaders and followers, boys and girls, outgoing ones and shy ones, and depending on what they are doing at the moment, differing levels of skill and knowledge. We know these hierarchies exist, and we have expectations of them. I ask Peregrine to watch out for Sylvia, to help her with things she can't do by herself. I ask the good soccer player to explain the game to the newbie. I ask the natural leader to head up the group project. And yet, so often, I see adults quickly intervene when children use the pecking order in a play context--if an older child tells a younger what to do, or a single child chooses a game for the whole group, or the leader personality casts himself as the hero in a game of make-believe. There are times, to be sure, where it is important to teach good leadership and coach a child on what his role is and isn't. But these little moments where one child is dominant and the other isn't are simply part of the social fabric of that relationship. They're not indicative of bullying, or even selfishness, and they shouldn't be treated as such. In fact, sometimes they're necessary for creating the harmony that we, and the children involved, both want. A younger child can't articulate game rules in a way that makes sense; an older child can. A shy child can't figure out a way to use everyone's strengths and keep a project moving; a strong, extroverted leader can. Generally, I've found that when you teach kindness and love and responsibility, but leave these hierarchies alone, the dominant children are usually very gentle and kind and understanding with those under their care. They know they are in a position of power and responsibility. They know the relationship is unequal. But it goes both ways, and they know that too. The younger ones will never be asked to tone down their body movements, watch out for the older ones, help others before themselves, or referee arguments. Usually, everyone's okay with that, and the benefits outweigh the discomforts. And when conflict arises, the older children (or the stronger leaders), who have more experience, will often act as mediators and model appropriate problem solving for the younger children. When adults constantly step in to curb leadership, or to make sure it is distributed evenly, the most mature voices likely won't rise to the top, or be listened to, during a conflict. Older children need to view themselves as teachers, caretakers, and leaders in order to step into those roles, and when they're not allowed to, they won't. When they are, though, they often manage to solve conflicts with far more understanding, compassion, and effectiveness than any adult possibly could.

Of course, as with any aspect of parenting, all children are different. Sibling sets are different, seasons of life are different, and parents are different when it comes to tolerance for squabbles and their own conflict solving skills. And, as with any aspect of parenting, navigating the waters of sibling-fights requires endless trial and error--a lot of error. We won't get it right all the time. Sometimes we'll let things go that should have been addressed, and sometimes we'll make a fuss over things that should have been let go. More than often, we'll likely get the balance wrong. But I think it's important to remember that conflict-solving, like any skill--speaking, reading, fine motor skills, swimming--is a learning process, and won't always be smooth, and that's okay. Our job as parents isn't to eliminate sibling conflict, nor is it to solve it as quickly as possible, with minimal tears and discomfort. Conflict is normal, it's inevitable, and it's okay to let our children struggle through it. Because they'll never be done with conflict. They may not be fighting each other over whether the kitchen cabinet ought ideally to be closed, open, or somewhere in between; but there will be coworkers who play music too loud and housemates who leave dirty dishes everywhere and spouses who don't realize they're hurting feelings. Siblings and classmates are the playground for all these more serious conflicts, and it's okay to let them learn and practice and perfect, when the stakes are low and the setting is safe and you are there to step in if they get too far in over their heads.

Next up, I'll elaborate a bit on what goes on behind the scenes of conflict--how I talk about problem solving when problems aren't happening and how I work to actively foster kindness and thinking about others--but for now, take a breath, and know that, even when the kids are screaming at each other over nothing but a freaking basement closet door for goodness sakes that no one even cares about, it's okay. They're little, they're learning, and this is how they're practicing for when the stakes are higher and the outcome of the conflict actually matters.

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