When we had six children from newborn to eight years old, their constant quarrelling drove me nuts, and I realized something had to be done. Lloyd and I called everybody together in a family council to discuss the matter. At that meeting we made a “Fight Chart.” (No euphemisms like the “Sunshine Chart.”) After writing the kids’ names down one side and the days of the week across the top, I taped it to the fridge. For the next week whenever there was a dispute, I put a mark by the name of each combatant.
A week later the chart bristled with black marks. With such visual evidence everyone could see we had an epidemic. We realized it was not enough to say, “No more fighting.” We needed to give them skills and alternate ways to settle conflicts. So we replayed some of the situations most often heard--mostly fights over possessions or places and invasions of privacy.
I said, “Suppose Aaron (6) goes into Jennifer’s (8) room. Jennifer, what would you do about it?”
She laughed nervously and answered, “I’d probably hit him and yell at him to leave.”
“Why do you suppose he goes there?” I asked.
She said he did it to bother her, but Aaron piped up and said he liked to play with her puzzles. Jennifer said, “If you asked me first, I’d let you play with them in your room--if you promised to put them back.” That sounded good, but I knew Aaron never put anything back, so I asked, “What if he doesn’t?”
Little Emily (5) suggested, “Why don’t we get Aaron his own puzzles? Then he can play with them in his own room any time he wants.” That seemed like a good idea to everyone, and we planned to do that the next day.
After discussing a few more familiar scenarios, we came up with a three-step approach to help our kids cut down on the fighting: First, we tried to show them how to be more verbally assertive. Without yelling or crying, state the obvious, “That makes me feel bad.” Even 3-year-old Hilary could do that. Second, if the problem continues, ask one of the older kids to intervene. We found they often had a better sense of who was really to blame than we did, and a better idea of what would be a fair solution. Third, if no one else can help, get Mom or Dad. They knew if they resorted to this, it usually meant everyone involved was separated for a cooling off period in different parts of the house.
We tried to teach our children that quarreling was never taken for granted, it never had a good reason, and it was always unacceptable. We were able to point out that although they might see Mom and Dad discussing a difference of opinion, they did not see us quarrel.
One of the skills we wanted them to learn was how to handle their anger appropriately. We never said, “Don’t be so mad.” The fact is, they were mad and they needed to know their feelings were legitimate. But hurting someone else, either verbally or physically, was not an option. Together as a family we came up with ways to direct that anger into more suitable, even creative channels. They could talk about how they felt, draw a picture, or write about it. I told them when I was a little girl, I had a “punch pillow” that took lots of punches when I was mad at my mother.
At this time we were stationed in Germany with the military and our kids had never been to a fast food place. Their newly arrived friends from the States talked about McDonald’s, while our kids had never even seen a picture of a Big Mac. So about the third week into this experiment we announced that if they could go a whole week without fighting, we would go to the new McDonald’s in downtown Kaiserslautern.
We used the Fight Chart for the next few weeks and continued to have family meetings to reinforce the training. We noticed that fights often broke out when the kids were tired or hungry, or, as often happened in Germany, it had been raining for several days and no one could go outside to get rid of some energy. Sometimes they needed to run in place or jump on the mini trampoline or do anything else physical. They learned that when everything and everyone bothered them, they either needed to eat something, rest, or maybe just go off by themselves to overcome their irritability.
Finally, after six weeks, the glorious day came when our Fight Chart remained unmarked for a whole week. We marched off to McDonalds in triumph where everyone had a Big Mac, fries, and a milkshake. It cost us nearly $100 (in 1974!), but it was worth it for a fight-free home. As we left the restaurant, Kristen (age 7), confidently declared, “That wasn’t so hard. Let’s do it again next week.”
I think our kids were the exact right age for this to work; I'm not sure it would be effective for older kids. Therefore, it would be wise to start this kind of training as early as possible. We found as we added three more children to our family that the oldest ones were a powerfully influential peer group.