Bickering, Tattling, and Sibling Warfare

“Is bickering really a discipline issue?”

Maybe this is semantics, but I think just about everything is a discipline issue.  The thing is that discipline is not merely another way to spell ” punishment.”  It can be, but it also includes training, teaching, mentoring, exhorting, demonstrating- discipling.

So what do we do about bickering?  Let’s clarify here that I am talking about mean-ness, not banter.  They might sound the same to outsiders, but when it’s your own family, you know when somebody is being spiteful and irritable and when somebody is engaged in affectionate teasing and banter.

I have a near zero tolerance level for mean bickering because I just can’t stand it. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.  I don’t like what it says about the realtionship.  I don’t like to see the people I love treating each other with disdain and disregard for their feelings. I don’t like to see the people I love being selfish.

The most common advice is to tell parents just to leave them alone to work it out.  I don’t do that.   I don’t leave them to work it out, because I hated that as a child- it usually left one of us at the mercy of the most stubborn or the most manipulative sibling.  I didn’t feel good about it even when that was me, although it usually was my little brothers who ‘won’ when our parents told us to ‘work it out.’  I saw this with my own kids, too- when they were younger and I first tried the ‘work it out amongst yourselves’ method.  If you have two children who are evenly matched in the stubborn or the peacemaking department, then it’s fine.  Otherwise….

The one most willing to go for broke in stubborn will win, the one most likely to be the peacemaker will lose.

This is really bad for the character of the child most willing to go for broke and least willing to be a peacemaker.

So what did we do? My husband would tell our girls, “Treating each other this way tells me you don’t really appreciate having your sister.  Since you don’t appreciate having a sister, you must act as though you don’t have one. You can’t talk to her, look at her, play with her, touch her, or mention her.”

Honestly, I thought this was dumb, btw, the first time he did it. He was the baby and the only boy, and there was more than six years between him and his older siblings (a group of girls that included an aunt and a mess of cousins plus his 2 sisters, all being reared by their grandma and great-grandma).  They all totally doted on the only boy and the baby of the group, and he garnered a lot of the sympathy vote since his mother had abandoned him as an infant, so he didn’t actually have much real sibling experience.  His relationship with his sisters and cousins and young aunt- well, it probably looked more like the relationship between a fan-club and its idol. They all told me that they had never, ever seen him angry about anything, which made me feel bad, since I have and do quite often- but then I asked him once, “Did any of them ever cross you as a child, ever deny you something you wanted?” and his immediate, gut level response was, “Oh, no, not ever.”  So I had little faith in his understanding of the sibling dynamics.  But his method worked worked like a charm for us- our girls were pleading to be given back their sister in no time at all, and the bickering was over for the day. 

I was more likely to try other approaches.  It just depended on time and circumstances, and sometimes my mood- and I think this illustrates a couple of  important principles, too:

  • 1. You need to be consistent in that you respond to the issue every single time, but you can have a large bag of varied tricks in your response toolkit.  
  • 2. You need to have the courage of your convictions and use the tools you feel confident in.  If you are uncertain that something will work, your kids will sense your diffidence and test the boundaries more.  

Here are some of the things I did in response to bickering:

I might try to  referee and try to get to the bottom of things.

If they were fighting over an item, I might just take away the object of discontent.

If it was just constant nitpicking, I sometimes would tell them to just stop talking to each other until they can get along- but they had to stay in the same room with each other and me.   No leaving the room in a huff.

Sometimes if I needed them to tell me what’s going on, I would have each child tell me what she thought the *other* child was going to say- they couldn’t defend their position, they had to basically explain it to me from their sibling’s point of view.  I had to ask lots of leading questions to draw this out of them, but the most useful was not “How do you think your sister feels about that,” but rather, “What is your sister going to tell me?”  I would have one of them leave the room so they couldn’t hear the other sibling’s version.  Then, when I thought I had the full story, I called them both back and told the story as I undertood it from as neutral a standpoint as possible.  Usually by then, they were both tired of it and also feeling more than a little sheepish and eager to just apologize and get it all over with.  This also had the advantage of kind of putting them on the same side in their frustration against mom, so they were friends again.=)

Other possible tactics (I gleaned most of these from other mothers)

 Ingratitude :
If they are expressing dissatisfaction with something they have, that demonstrates a lack of gratitude.  They can give up the item they had not been grateful for.
Depending on the age of the child, request a list of 3, 5, 10 things they are grateful for.
Sing Count Your Blessings.  Possibly very loudly.  Mom might join in as well.

For some bickering or contentiousness, if it was the sort that mainly was the tone of voice more than what was said, I treated  this the same as I did for whining, I either made them repeat it cheerfully with smiles on their faces, or I gave them a spoonful of vinegar and told them that just as vinegar sets the teeth on edge, so does whining and hateful speech set my teeth on edge and makes everybody around them have a sour time of it.

Once in a great while this was followed up by a taste of honey with the reminder that our words should be sweet as honey.

Then there’s the sort of bickering that involves a careful, skating around the edges of the ‘rules’, taunting, usually accompanied by one or both of them trying to get the other in trouble.

My middle brother and I did this to our thinner skinned youngest brother.  We would look at him, he would tattle.  My dad would lose his cool, because my dad easily lost his cool, plus, who died and made the littlest brother king so nobody could even look at him?  Eventually Dad caught on that we were looking at him on purpose, that we only did  to annoy and provoke pretty much the same response we were getting.  Dad tried to coax the youngest brother into not letting us get to him.  He told him we were only looking for a reaction and  if he would stop giving us one we’d give up.  This was true, but we were also older so we had an upper hand.  Little bro would manfully try to ignore us, and sometimes would tell us “I know you’re just trying to make me mad.”  We would nod and say, “Yes.  But we’re still looking at you.”  It wouldn’t take long before he would explode and go screaming to Dad, where he got no sympathy at all, and sometimes was yelled at for it, and we got much personal satisfaction from our successful attempt at mental torture.  We were horrible children.  This Lord of the Flies behavior is what comes of letting the children work it out for themselves.

For this sort of behavior I bring out the big guns- 1 Corinthians 13:

 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This was followed by this sort of ‘catechism:’

Are you doing what you are doing right now because you love your sister? Is your behavior patient and kind, or arrogant and rude? Are you telling on your sister because you love her or because you rejoice at wrongdoing and want to see her in trouble? Are you loving your sister or being irritable or resentful?

If somebody else were listening, would they know you love your sister, or would they think you hate her? Are you using your mouth to make somebody feel bad on purpose, or are you using your mouth to build somebody up?

It’s entirely possible that I merely exhausted them out of the bickering and tattling, and what I saw as teaching they saw as punishment. Honestly, I don’t really care all that much about why it stopped, I just wanted it to end.  Whatever the reasons, the bickering was greatly reduced in our house, and none of the Progeny admire it when they hear it from other sibling groups. They also find it offensive when they hear parents say that there isn’t anything you can do about it, siblings will just fight and not get along.

It’s true that siblings do this and you are not a failure as a parent if your kids bicker, because they are human beings and human beings rarely get along peaceably 24 and 7 with somebody they live with 24 and 7, and the younger they are the less practice they have with that. But it’s like many other things that are true- it just does not go far enough. It is also true that children naturally begin to lie at around 4 years of age (give or take a couple, depending on the child). But you don’t ignore it, you address it and train them to a better way. Children naturally eat with their hands and chew with their mouths open, too. There are many things that are normal that you don’t allow to become normative, and fighting with siblings, at least in our house, is one of those things.

Updated to add: I think it’s also interesting that all four of the girls who are married (or, in the case of the fourth, about to be married), that was something they noticed early on about their intended, and/or the intended were attracted to the girls for this reason- they had good sibling relationships.

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4 Comments

  1. Frances
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Most interesting post – looking back to my own childhood.

    “…the sounds of anger, harsh as splintered bones…” – don’t remember the source but it has always stuck in my mind.

  2. Amity
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Bookmarking for use in the trenches. Thank you.

  3. Posted June 5, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    My brother and I always got along fairly well growing up. Of course, we’d have our fights, but we’d always try to find a way to work it out in the end since we were the closest friends we had. In other words, our mother never really had to exercise much discipline in that area. 🙂

  4. Jennifer Stanley
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Great article.

    My children get along fairly well. I do not allow meanness either.
    If I can’t access the situation right away I suggest that someone is being selfish and that whoever it is needs to stop immediately. A lot of times the arguement is ended right there. If not, once I’ve been able to access it I speak to about of them it. I generally suggest to the antagonist that the way they are behaving is inappropriate. I’ll speak to the protagonist and suggest how they reacted may have been over the top. That way no one thinks I’m playing favorites. This has worked for me if I have a bully. This has worked for me if I have a sibling who is trying to correct another sibling and they handle it harshly.

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