I boruch Hashem have two very wonderful young boys, ages 9 and 7. They fight a lot. I find that I am constantly refereeing their fighting. Part of me wants to just let them deal with it themselves but they wind up coming and crying to me at some point. I have no idea how I am supposed to judge and arbitrate 15 disagreements a day. Please give me some tips on how to manage this.
You presented your concern very succinctly. I think that this is a question that most people with more than one child have asked themselves in one form or another. I see two basic aspects to this type of concern. One is logical, the other emotional.
On the emotional side, to what degree is your difficulty in deciding how to proceed related to your general emotional reaction to your boys fighting and to any specific triggers within each situation? For instance, are you feeling powerless as a father? Or do certain circumstances remind you of feelings that you had as a child? To the extent that your feelings are caused by your own emotional attachment to a situation, it can be difficult to properly assess the situation from a pragmatic point of view.
In each situation, it’s important to identify—then set aside—your emotions in order to logistically decide on the best course of action. This requires introspection on your part to recognize the types of instances that lead to emotions that affect your decisions. Once these instances and emotions are clear, it will be easier to acknowledge them within the situation. At that point, you can more easily set these feelings aside and deal with the problem in a more practical fashion.
From a logical perspective, when your children fight you seem to ask yourself whether your involvement will be helpful or harmful—in both the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, will your intervention lead to one (or both) of the children feeling hurt? When dealing only with his brother, each of your boys may feel upset about what is being said and done. When a parent gets involved, however, there is the potential for them to feel belittled, disregarded, disenfranchised, or otherwise criticized. Over time, this can lead to a deep sense of resentment and other negative feelings.
On the other hand, properly arbitrating a fight can help your sons to recognize that you care about their feelings and concerns. It can also help them learn how to deal with similar situations on their own. Modeling appropriate behavior and showing them the proper way to settle a disagreement can—over time—help them to do this better on their own.
This leads us to the other factor. From a parenting perspective, should you be constantly showing your boys how to properly resolve an argument, or are they better off figuring it out for themselves? Obviously all children and relationships are different. Depending on children’s natures, relationship, levels of maturity, and other factors, proper reactions will vary. Often, however, it’s a matter of focusing on the long-term goal. Our job as parents is to help our children reach adulthood with the best possible tools to help them navigate life. We may feel calmer after forcing our children to stop fighting. We may congratulate ourselves on defusing a tense situation. But have we helped our children to develop their own coping skills? Have they learned to deal with a future incident in a slightly better way?
This question can also be extrapolated to many areas. To what extent should we “help with” (read “do”) our children’s homework? When our child dislikes a teacher, should we intervene? If a child is unhappy in summer camp, should we visit, insisting that the camp bend their rules to allow this? Should we give our children everything in order to make them “happy?” Basically, should we fix our children’s issues or let them (or help them) to learn how to do so on their own?
These are not easy questions to answer, and each child and situation needs to be dealt with differently. However, if we identify the questions that should be asked and apply their responses to each situation, we’re more likely to come up with the appropriate response.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317
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