Thursday, July 23, 2015

Judy - The Fight Chart #21

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.

During the fifth week, the kids began to police themselves. We noticed sometimes they did go away to be by themselves, or from someone’s bedroom I heard a whispered, “Shh. She’ll hear you.”

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.”

We continued to air grievances at regular family councils but we didn’t use the Fight Chart again until nearly a year later after another outbreak of hostilities. This time everyone mastered the lessons quickly because they knew what they were supposed to do; they just needed reminding. After that the tone of the house was set so if someone did yell or quarrel, it was so obviously inappropriate we almost didn’t need to say anything.

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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Judy - Siblings Without Rivalry #20

Parents are probably so upset about their children fighting because, most of all, they want them to be friends. This is the ideal we’re all striving for. 

But how do we deal with the nitty gritty of everyday on our way to this ideal? The best book I’ve ever read on the subject is Siblings Without Rivalry (Avon Books) by Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish. They give specific and common examples along with the best way to deal with each one. Also, they talk about general principles to keep in mind for any situation.

One of the main points the authors stress is to describe what you see happening. “Uh oh, I see two boys yelling and pushing.” Often this alone will be enough to stop the war for a moment, at least long enough to let the boys tell you what they are mad about. And that can be a cooling down period. Then when they tell you, describe what you’re hearing. “So you want to watch the baseball game, and you want to watch cartoons. Is that right?” Just the fact that you are really listening will often make a difference too. Continue by saying, “That’s a tough one, but I have confidence you two can work it out.” Then leave the room. (It might be interesting to look back and see their jaws drop open.) If they were fighting to draw you into relating to them, even unconsciously, you foiled them. In addition, your confidence in them to work it out gives them the confidence to do it without always running to you.

My husband, Lloyd, says things were relatively calm around our house because with my nearsighted  eyes and poor hearing, I didn’t see half of what went on, and everybody was happier.

Another important principle in the book, which reinforces what I said earlier, is to never, ever compare your children! Comparisons always add gasoline to the flames of competition. This is obvious when you say things like, “Why can’t you be neat and clean up your room like your sister?” But it is even harmful to the neat one when you compare her in a positive way to the messy one who isn’t there. “I wish your sister were as neat as you are.” Instead, if you want to compliment the neat one, describe what you see. “You worked hard to make your room this clean. I’m impressed.” The first way tells your child she’s better than her sister, which doesn’t do their relationship any good. The second way acknowledges her accomplishment and tells her she’s praiseworthy. Her sister should not enter into it at all.

Sometimes fights become so physical they could be dangerous, and then you have to step in to avoid bodily harm. Again, the book suggests you quickly describe what you see. “I see a boy about to hit his sister with a truck. This is too dangerous, and you need a cooling off period. You sit on the couch and you go sit on that chair.” Sometimes with little boys and their inborn need to wrestle, it’s hard to tell if the situation is real anger or just healthy wrestling. So ask them, “Is this a real fight or a play fight?” It has to be agreed by both parties that it’s a play fight or it gets stopped.

To avoid arguments about food, I’ve heard mothers say they carefully divided things like french fries into equal amounts. They practically weighed everything on a postal scale, and cutting a pizza took forever. But the book has a better suggestion. If someone complains that someone else got more, ask the complainer, “Oh, are you still hungry? Do you want more?” This reply puts the focus on the individual and allows them to determine what they actually want, not what they want in comparison to what someone else has. If it was something like cake, Lloyd’s father used to tell his two boys, “One of you cuts it and the other chooses which piece he wants,” thereby taking the parent out of the picture completely.

Can you tell how much I liked this book? I highly recommend it to every parent with at least two children and I thought it deserved a blog post all its own. These authors have another great one called, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. But that is a topic for another day.

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