My son (age 11) and daughter (age 9) seem to bicker and “pick” at each other endlessly—even though they get in trouble for doing it. While we’re doing our schoolwork, it seems that they try their best to annoy each other…and me (making gross noises, talking nonsense in silly voices, humming, etc.). If he’s not complaining about her (“why does she always…”, she’s yelling at him to be quiet so she can work (or whining about it). They have desks and sit across the room from each other (not facing each other either!). This doesn’t happen just at school time, but all day long! They’ve been punished in various ways, but to no avail. I try to keep a good, patient attitude, but some days it’s really difficult. Do you have any ideas to stop the bickering?
I think this is the lamentation of every mom! Kids naturally seem to squabble. Still, I do not approve of it nor treat it as acceptable behavior. It is the result of selfishness and children have to be trained to think of others rather than just their own satisfaction. It is a process, but by age 8, a child can definitely learn to act peacefully, even if they still feel selfish inside. Learning self-control is the central lesson of childhood.
Bickering and picking on each other undermines peace and happiness in the home for everyone. Home needs to be a “refuge from the storm”, a very safe place where each member can be themselves and feel protected. Relentless squabbling can make children feel emotionally vulnerable and uneasy. Home ceases to be a safe place. In our home, I have a “zero tolerance” policy on any kind of negative interaction between any family members. This is easier said than done, like everything else in child raising!
Here is how I enact it in my own home. Through daily devotionals and regular family teaching times, I teach and reteach and reinforce that we are to love each other and care for each other. I tell my children that making the other person feel happy and feel good about themselves is their duty. I use stories, scriptures and quotes to back it up. I often remind them, “Think! Would saying that or doing that make the other person feel good?”
When I hear a snide remark, I confront it every single time. Everyone knows they will not “get away with it”, but that there will be a consequence for their action. Knowing that there is someone in control, for those who will not or cannot yet control themselves, is a very safe feeling. So if one of my children cannot behave in the family setting, they have to go away from the family setting until they control themselves. If a child is making trouble at meal time, I remove him to the kitchen where they can eat alone, while we laugh and enjoy each other in the dining room. (I do not remove them to their room where they can have fun). If they can’t be civil while listening to family read-aloud (with something like drawing or crocheting to keep their hands busy), then they miss hearing that portion of the book. It is simple and children can learn it fast provided your are consistent.
I try to remember the rule James Jones, family therapist, teaches: “Never reward negative behavior.” Giving a child attention will reinforce the behavior—even if it is unpleasant attention from Mom such as talking to them, correcting them, calling their name, asking them to stop, spanking them, etc. It is almost as if the formula works like this: “irritating annoying behavior from me = Mom’s eye contact + Mom’s attention + Mom’s voice + more of the same from sister”, which means less time having to control oneself to focus on potentially difficult schoolwork or chores. Any attention seems to be preferred to no attention.
If my child does anything annoying, I ask him quietly to stop it, without making eye contact or giving the issue any emotional charge. I often voice the very words I want to hear from the offender (to make it easy for him to get it right—also a form of practice). For example, I may say out loud in the presence of my son, the offender: “I am sorry, Louisa, for tapping your chair. I won’t do it anymore”. The second offense results in action on my part (removing the toy he is banging, or removing him to another room). It is really so important that consequences are administered in a matter-of-fact, non-emotional manner so that feelings don’t get in the way of learning the information, which is: undesirable action results in an immediate and unpleasant consequence. If you allow yourself to get upset, lecture, scold, cry, plead, threaten or otherwise muddy the water with emotion, your misbehaving child will get a big pay-off in seeing that he can rile you up. Any attention is better than no attention, in the mind of a child.
This reminds me of an experience I had while teaching singing to the children at church. When I came on board, the children were not accustomed to having a leader in control, apparently, because as soon as we began to sing, the antics began. One boy was pinching and teasing the child sitting next to him. Another child was making ridiculous faces. A girl on the front row took off her shoe and balanced it on top her head (I am not exaggerating!) You get the picture. Without missing a beat in leading the song, I inched my way over nonchalantly to the boy who was misbehaving. While smiling and singing and leading the group, and without looking at him, I stepped on his shoe rather firmly. I did not give him an ounce of attention or reward or eye contact or even the benefit of getting upset. I just quietly made sure he knew I did not approve, via pressure on his big toe. His eyes got big in disbelief of what I was up to, and he immediately stopped the mischief. The children around him who noticed quieted down also. Next, still while leading the song, I worked my way over to the girl on the front row and picked up the shoe that was balanced on her head. Smiling and singing all the while, I pitched her shoe to the end of the room where it hit the wall with a bang! And there it remained until I dismissed the class, even though the girl was most distressed.
Oh! Now there was rapt attention in the room and our singing sessions were ever so pleasant and mannerly. I meant business. I was nice and smiled and did not ever lose my composure, but everyone knew I was not to be messed with, and we did have a very fun time singing together from then on! By the way, nobody really can have a fun time (or a learning time) while someone is misbehaving. It blesses everyone to put a stop to it. It especially blesses the child who is misbehaving to know someone will care enough to control him! Did anyone misbehave again in my singing group? Yes, someone would timidly test the waters every month or so, but I kindly and unemotionally made sure they knew that the ship still had a captain!
You mentioned trying to be patient. Patience truly is a virtue! But, it can be misused by us moms sometimes. Immediate, swift action (rather than patience) is needed to train children. The biggest challenge to me is that I get tired and feel too lazy at times to be absolutely consistent. But, if you let one infraction of the rule slip by unheeded, you will have a revolution on your hands! Either mom is in control and expects children to behave, or Mom is not in control and chaos reigns in one degree or another. We can’t choose both options. And patience (if it means putting up with misbehavior without giving it an immediate consequence) is a detriment to teaching children how to act.
I want to assure you that I am not mean. I make every effort to smile, keep a low, calm voice and be nice. That is why it is so effective. If a mother is out of control, the consequence has little effect, because the pay-off is attention. If a child can get you flustered, he is in control, not you.
Child raising is a tricky profession indeed, and so very important too! Here are some creative ideas I have heard of from other mothers:
- Tie one of their hands to their sibling’s hand and make them walk around the block together (requires cooperation and lets off steam).
- Put them in a room together and tell them they cannot come out until they settle out their problem and agree to get along. (I’m a little scared of this one.)
- Negotiate with them. You be the mediator and ask each one to honestly express his concern in respectful words, and you try to negotiate a settlement. Sometime they will set rules and consequences for themselves and be swift and fair in executing the consequence–self-government.
- Isolate the misbehaving child in a boring place (on a chair in the laundry room . . . ?)
- Assign chores. Dishwashing has a very sobering effect on children, if done long enough. Read about Mad Kids and Work.
- Assign extra math facts problems, 10 for each offensive remark, to be done immediately.
- Play the Paper Clip game. Each family member starts the day with 10 paper clips looped in a chain hanging from his shirt. Each negative or critical remark means they relinquish a paperclip to the person who calls them on it, who may then add it to their chain. At lunchtime, a reward is waiting for the family member who has the most! Start again with a fresh chain of 10 paperclips for the time period from lunch to dinner, and again from dinner to bedtime. Make the reward simple (biggest piece of dessert, getting to choose the dinner menu (within limits), getting to choose which game to play, book to read after dinner or let them skip their part in clean-up from the meal, etc.).
I also prefer to reward (rather than punish), so a consequence for good behavior, which puts the attention and focus on the positive action. Just like learning to ride a bike, learning to be positive and peaceful is an acquired skill improved with practice. Our children’s behavior is a product of our training. We have trained our children to wear clothes, use the toilet, eat from dishes, etc. because we consistently insisted on it in a kind way, and we would not tolerate any other behavior. Children can also be trained to be loving peacemakers who speak positively through our consistent, insistent training. Our own example is wonderful, but it is not enough—we all know parents who are very good, respectful loving people who have disrespectful hellions for kids! To learn any skill, there must be practice, practice, practice. Lovingly enforced by a parent.
Remember, this is a process and child raising takes 20 years to complete. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just try everyday to be consistent and firm with your children on this one important quality that you are trying to train them in. Smile and give them lots of positive feedback for getting along and not bugging each other. You will be greatly rewarded as the years go by and they enjoy each other and bring you a lot of joy through their peaceful, positive interactions.
May I recommend: