Rescuing children from conflict doesn't prepare them well for life, but there may also be times you need to step in.
Depending on the inflection and how long the vowel sound lasts, I can usually predict what type of comment or concern is headed my way. It’s the “mom” with two syllables, often spoken in a whiny voice, that alerts me to the inevitable: a sibling dispute.
Whether it’s the petty arguments among siblings at play or the all-out brawls that we cringe to witness as parents, all of us can agree that dealing with disagreements and fighting is one of our greatest challenges. To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question.
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Because toddlers and preschoolers are less adept at communication, it’s inherently important to assist them in developing good methods of sharing their feelings. With seven children under the age of 12, I know this can be exhausting. At a recent gathering, I was engaged in a conversation among a group of friends when my 3-year-old son began crying because his brother squirted him with a water gun without permission. Not only did he resort to screaming at his brother, he also yelled at me. I knelt down next to him, and reminded him first to say, “Excuse me, mom.” After hearing both sides and modeling positive communication, our 5-year-old apologized and understood that his younger brother did not want to get wet and was happy to aim the water at his already drenched older siblings. Had I not taken the time to address the behavior and help the boys use the right words in a calm way, I’m certain the cycle would have continued.
There can be a negative outcome, however, if you rescue a child from every compromising situation. Some research suggests that such helicopter parenting an increase social anxiety and depression, as well as make it difficult to handle conflict. We want our children to be able to handle conflict because it’s an inescapable part of life. So, no matter how hard it is to see our children upset, we must let them manage it at times and deal with the consequences.
When our toddlers saw their older siblings leaving for an outing with their grandparents recently, you would have thought it was the end of the world of Paw Patrol. Amidst the screams of jealousy, I was tempted to hand them an ice cream cone to compensate (and selfishly to stop the crying). But I knew I didn’t want to establish a cushion to expect in times of uneasiness, so I was sure to acknowledge their sadness, but quickly moved on.
As busy parents, we simply don’t have the time to take care of all the conflicts between our children. We don’t need to feel guilty about this because we’re helping them more by giving them the training and confidence to confront obstacles on their own. In fact, systematic ignoring has consistently shown to be an effective tool for parents.
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My 11-year-old twins were recently in a heated argument about who was going to finish the dishes, as there were leftover dishes from both of their assigned duties. Although my motherly instinct wanted to fix the problem and be done with it, my better judgment knew they were completely capable of figuring out a plan. It took a couple of hours, some tears and anger, but the dishes were completed and to my pleasant surprise, the following day they worked together to clean the kitchen without being asked. It usually doesn’t happen this quickly, but there is much truth in the saying that failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.
There are two types of situations when I do intervene. The first is if one child is being taken advantage of or manipulated by another sibling. Recently our 7-year-old, when his younger brother wouldn’t share his food that was rightly his, told him he would not play stuffed animals with him anymore. He needed to understand that coercing for your own good is not charitable and can be damaging to the relationship, so I stepped in. My other rule of thumb for any aged child is that if it gets physical, there will be a consequence. Our kids have learned that hitting is the surest route to earning a bucket of water and a scrubbing pad.
Let’s face it, our kids don’t have a “Good Moral Behavior” button, nor do we adults if I recall. C.S. Lewis gives a great justification for this in Mere Christianity. So the next time I get frustrated with my children’s poor decisions and have to face that big question, “To Intervene or Not to Intervene,” I need to remind myself of Lewis’s explanation that God gave us free will so that we could choose to love Him eternally. For if we were programmed on auto to do good, we could not fully love. And this is where we as parents come in.