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“It’s not fair!  His piece of cake is bigger than mine!”

“It’s not fair!  He has the ball but I want to play with it!”

“It’s not fair!  He got to go to a birthday party and I didn’t!”

For a while there, it seemed that “It’s not fair” had become the soundtrack to my life.  The almost obsessive way my boys measured how the details of their lives stacked up when compared with one another was driving me crazy. I knew it was a normal stage of cognitive development but all that complaining sounded, frankly, entitled & ungrateful and dealing with it was exhausting me.

From my observations, we parents usually have one of two responses to our children’s whines that “it’s not fair”-

1) We scramble to make things as equal as possible in order to quell the protests.

2) We snap back, “Well, life’s not fair – get used to it!” in a fed up, sarcastic tone of voice.

I have done both.

But, recently, exhausted by a million “it’s not fair”s, I did something altogether more productive.  I banned those three little words from our family conversations.

LIFE ISN’T FAIR & THAT’S OK

As adults, we know that life isn’t fair in the usual sense of the word – we don’t all get exactly the same amount of each thing.  Every person can compare their lives in both directions – My family doesn’t get about in a stylish car and chic clothes like some families I see.  But, we live in a spacious, weathertight home while others rely on a makeshift cardboard shack or a communal tent at a refugee camp for their shelter.  If our children are raised to believe that they should get the same as everybody else, they will constantly be trying to make sense of a reality that doesn’t fit their belief, swinging wildly between feelings of victimhood and privilege.

Another understanding of fair is getting what we deserve.  This, too, does not hold true.  We all know stories of bad things happening to good people.  We can think of times in our own lives when we worked really hard or did all the “right” things and didn’t enjoy the pay-off we wanted. Often effort and good values do pay-off (and they’re still worth doing) – but they’re not a guarantee.

But life is fair in that we all get opportunities to experience heartache, worry, peace and joy, if in different forms.  My understanding is that our experiences in life are in some way individualised to meet the purposes of our souls (not our egos).  That’s not to say that, in the midst of it all, we feel like we’re getting a good deal but I guess that’s what faith is – trusting that things are unfolding for the greatest good, even when it doesn’t appear that way.  This is the understanding of “fair” that I hope my boys will have.

HOW I RESPOND WHEN MY CHILDREN COMPLAIN “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

My boys know that they are always welcome to express their point of view but I’m teaching them to talk about themselves, not in comparison to others.  “What your brother has/does isn’t relevant, just tell me about yourself”, I’ll say.  And this is something that I do in many different parenting situations – I keep their focus on what they can control.  Themselves.  So, instead of saying, “It’s not fair, he has the car and I wanted to play with it”, they can say, “I’d like a turn with that car” and we work through it from there.

Recently, Jake needed new shoes so I took him shopping for a pair.  When we got home, Thomas asserted that it wasn’t fair, he wanted a new pair of shoes too.  I explained that his shoes fit him well and are not yet worn out so he doesn’t need new shoes right now.  “When you need new shoes, I will get you new shoes”, I told him.  I wanted him to see that people need different things at different times and that my “fairness” lies not in giving my boys the same but in treating them the same by providing them each with what they need when they need it. Thomas was very accepting of my response.

Most importantly, I’m trying not to use the word “fair” myself (which is harder than I expected!). Fairness is not one of our family values – but kindness, for instance, is.  So, if one of my boys is using a toy that the other wants, I encourage kindness and consideration from both parties – “Jake, please leave Thomas to enjoy his turn with the ball, then you can have it.  And, Thomas, when you’ve finished, please give the ball to Jake so that he can have a turn”.  Or I might encourage them to work things out together in a way that satisfies them both, “how can you sort this out so that you both get to have fun with the ball?”  Here, I’m focussing on the small kindness of allowing the other to enjoy playing with the ball.  It’s a subtle shift, easily made by not using the word “fair”.

But, if it’s a cake that has been cut into uneven slices, I just spare us the fuss and make sure they are evened up before my boys even have a chance to whine that it’s not fair.  Let’s just be practical about that one!

IN SUMMARY: NO MORE KEEPING SCORE

I hope you feel somewhat relieved of the burden of trying to keep everything equal between your children.  It was always an impossible task, even for the most clever and cunning of parents.  When our children whine that “It’s not fair!”, we have a chance to teach them that life is not a comparison game.  We have all experienced that downward spiral comparison with others creates for our own sense of wellbeing – let’s not pass that onto our kids.

One benefit of banning the phrase “It’s not fair” is that my boys seem to find it affirming to be treated as individuals, to know that I’m tuning into them and  their unique needs, rather than treating situations as an administrative exercise – keeping tally, taking stock, balancing the books.  Their complaints that “It’s not fair!” are s-l-o-w-l-y reducing as we all learn to keep our eyes on ourselves, not others.

Much love to you and your little souls,

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I hear shrieks, followed by two sets of footsteps racing up the stairs to get to me first.  My boys burst into the room, words falling out of their mouths before they even reach me.  I had been happily minding my own business, making my bed as I listened to a podcast, but now I felt myself quickly fill with dread.  I knew they were coming to ask me to resolve a dispute that I didn’t even see and that I already knew would be impossible to get to the bottom of…

 

School holidays have just finished here in New Zealand.  As we were saying goodbye to our friends at the end of last term, I noticed an almost universal parental response to the impending break – they were looking forward to having more time with their kids but they were dreading the sibling conflict, which seems to escalate to new heights when our children have so much time together.

Last year, I wrote an essay called Snatching Squabbling & Slamming Doors – Siblings!  In it, I exposed the parental desperation around sibling conflict.  A lot of people related to the examples I gave –

…next minute…there’s shouting – no, roaring – and Jake has evicted Thomas from his bedroom.  Thomas is banging on the door, crying that he wants to be let back in.

Or…Thomas has decided he wants the toy car that Jake’s got (even though his fists are already full with 3 others) and the snatching and squealing begins.

Or…Jake begins to slowly wind Thomas up, taking advantage of his 3 years senior.  He argues, manipulates and competes with Thomas, who just can’t keep up and ends up hitting Jake in frustration.  And, of course, Jake comes running to report to me, very indignantly, that Thomas hit him.

Or…(and this one takes the cake)…we’re in the car and Thomas starts wailing “I don’t want Jake to look at me!”

In my essay, I admitted that I didn’t know what to do and concluded that I just had to ride it out and trust that, as they got older, they’d better be able to manage themselves.

 

MY SECRET TO MANAGING SIBLING CONFLICT

Well, I’m pleased to report that, now that my boys are a year older (4 and 7 years old), things are improving – considerably.  I put it down partly to their maturity and partly to my consistent message that we treat one another with respect & kindness.

But I have also discovered a secret that helps me to lead my boys more easily to a resolution.  It prevents the situation from spiraling downward into an impossible confusion of interjections and tears, as it once seemed to do inevitably.  Want know what my secret is?  It’s this –

Don’t take sides.

Have you noticed how sibling conflict quickly turns into a jostle for Mum or Dad’s attention and affirmation?  Our children come racing to us, wanting to be the first to have their story of mistreatment heard.  They want to be told that they are the one who is “right”.  Well, if one of them is “right”, then the other is “wrong”.  If we play the role our children want us to, someone is always judged.

But, as a soulful parent, I stand by my boys through all things without judgement (well, ideally, anyway).    My job in any situation is to be there for both of them, supporting them each in the way that they need to be supported.  Doing this takes enormous intention and patience on my part because often my brain insists that there is one boy who “is clearly in the wrong”.  It wants to pick up a wig and gavel, make an authoritative ruling and get onto the next thing (usually the next item on my to-do list).

But, if I don’t intervene by declaring who is victim and who is perpetrator, if I don’t order a “fair” solution to the situation, what do I do?

I upskill them.  I take my boys through a process which gives them the skills to express themselves, manage their emotions, problem-solve and work with others.

This process is less a step-by-step how-to and more of a conversation that is adjusted for the individuals and the situation at hand.  You could say I have found some rules for these conversations that help me to shape the discussion so that it is constructive (instead of becoming a cauldron of complaints, blaming and frustration).  Here are the rules I have set for myself when managing sibling conflict –

 

Managing Sibling Conflict: Rules of Engagement (for Parents)

* Take no sides (already explained).

* Give each child a chance to explain their feelings and have them acknowledged by me.  Usually, I do this with each of them separately because their sibling can’t help but interject if they disagree.  Feeling heard helps them to calm down too.

* Get each child to focus on their own behaviour and what they can do in the situation, not what their sibling did or should do.  For example, we discuss the impact of their behaviour on the other and prepare what they want to say to their sibling.

* Help the siblings to come together to problem-solve.  Having coached them each already, I get them together and become the mediator for their conversation.  I don’t usually put any ideas forth myself, I say as little as possible.   I just help them to take turns to tell each other what they have to say and to listen to each other.  The goal is for them to learn how to communicate well and to come to a resolution together.

After months of this kind of coaching and mediating, we’re beginning to see the reward.  These holidays, I have heard both of my boys try to use the skills I’ve been teaching them on their own, without stepping into my courtroom.  Having practiced the skills so many times, they’re getting the hang of how to express themselves, listen to each other and problem-solve together.  I am freed of my judge’s wig and gavel.

 

IN SUMMARY – SIBLING CONFLICT COURT ADJOURNED

Of course, this is not the secret to eliminating sibling conflict altogether – arguments are normal!  But, when I don’t take sides, my boys learn the many skills of managing conflict themselves.  I intend to eventually be made redundant.

Personally, it is an enormous relief to realise that I do not have to get to the bottom of every argument, to determine who’s right or wrong and what the “fair” resolution is.  Instead of wading through all the details, trying to excavate the “truth”, all I have to do is to help them find a way forward.

This makes each situation more positive for my boys too because, regardless of their role in it, they can both rely on my affirmation and support.  They don’t have to compete for my allegiance as they once did because I no longer take up the role of judge.  I give them the power in the situation instead of wielding it myself.

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

 

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Check out this great book, Siblings without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (not an affiliate link)

On my blog, I share my experiences as a parent who is trying to honour and nurture her children’s spirits in the ordinary moments of life.  I write because it makes me a better parent.  I find that I make discoveries as I type, uncovering loving wisdom as I mull things over and try to make enough sense of them to put into words.  I share what works for me in my posts, not because I regard myself as an expert but incase other parents might find it helpful in some way.

Today, though, I don’t think I have any tips to offer.  I’m writing about an area of parenting in which I feel stuck.  I will try not to let it turn into a pointless rant, I’m hoping, at least, that other parents who have the same struggles will feel less alone when they read it.  And, if you have any suggestions to help, please share them in the comments!

 

THE PROBLEM – CAN  YOU RELATE?

I want to say from the start that my boys are lovely.  They are kind, friendly, helpful and charming much of the time.  They adore each other.  3-year-old Thomas will put his arms around his big brother and say, “You’re my best friend Dake (Jake)” and Jake will return the affection.  My heart swells to see them play together, happy in their own world for two.

But, next minute…there’s shouting – no, roaring – and Jake has evicted Thomas from his bedroom.  Thomas is banging on the door, crying that he wants to be let back in.

Or…Thomas has decided he wants the toy car that Jake’s got (even though his fists are already full with 3 others) and the snatching and squealing begins.

Or…Jake begins to slowly wind Thomas up, taking advantage of his 3 years senior.  He argues, manipulates and competes with Thomas, who just can’t keep up and ends up hitting Jake in frustration.  And, of course, Jake comes running to report to me, very indignantly, that Thomas hit him.

Or…(and this one takes the cake)…we’re in the car and Thomas starts wailing “I don’t want Jake to look at me!”

 

Jake knows how to use his power over Thomas and Thomas can be just plain difficult sometimes.

Most of this squabbling occurs either when we’re in the car and I’m unable to resolve things because I’m driving or when I’m just out of ear shot so don’t know exactly how it got started.  And trying to get a straight story from the two of them is pointless.  Sometimes, I don’t even try.

Often, usually when I’ve just sat down for a 5-minute coffee, I hear them both declare “I’m telling on you!” followed by two sets of feet racing to get to me first in order to lodge a complaint against the other.  I already know the situation is going to be impossible to resolve.

The bickering, fussing, shouting and tears challenges my sanity some days.  I’m tired of having to stop in the middle of what I’m doing to try and sort things out. I don’t have energy to expend on what are usually quite petty arguments.  For all my efforts, I rarely feel that I’ve sorted things out properly and it all starts up again 5 minutes later anyway.  It’s like trying to referee a sports game without knowing the rules.  Some days, I end up bickering, fussing, shouting and nearly in tears.

 

WHAT DO I DO?!

As a soulful parent, I’m trying to teach my boys to show kindness and respect for everyone, regardless of who they are or how they behave.  Siblings are the perfect people to practise on and that is part of their purpose in our lives.  I still believe in my boys’ natural kindness because I see so much of that too but no amount of appealing to the love they have for each other seems to be making a long-term difference with the squabbling.

I’m also mindful of the fact that it is their relationship to have and it’s not my role to micro-manage it.  While I don’t allow them to hurt each other, I don’t often discipline them over the way they treat each other because I don’t see it as a discipline issue, I see it as a relationship issue.

Many days, by the afternoon (or sometimes by breakfast time), I’m fed up, too exasperated to try being wise and reasonable.  Sometimes I do what I always said I wouldn’t – ask Jake to back down since he’s the older one, just so we can all have some peace.   Other times, I confiscate the toy they’re fighting over or send them to play in different areas of the house or distract them with something else.  These things give us all reprieve.  But it’s only temporary.

 

CALL IN THE EXPERTS – SOME PERSPECTIVE ON THE SITUATION

As I’ve been pondering all the squabbling and my own feeling of helplessness in order to write this blog post, I’ve remembered a theory I learned when training as a teacher.  Psychologist Jean Piaget defined four stages of cognitive development and, according to his theory, both my boys would fit into the Preoperational Stage (approx. 2-7 years).  Among other things, at this stage, children tend to be ego-centric and struggle to see things from another person’s point of view.  This is reassuring – kind of.  It’s not that my boys are especially self-centred – they’re typical of their ages – but what am I to do in the meantime?

One of the most important things we do as parents is to accept our children as they are.  So here is another opportunity for me to practise full acceptance.  I need to accept the cognitive stage my boys are at.  I can keep reminding & encouraging them to be kind & respectful and explicitly appreciating it when they are but I may have to accept that it won’t be immediately effective.  Right now, I’m sowing the seed for when their brains are able to think beyond themselves.  If I can’t change the situation, for my own sanity, the best I can do is accept it.  I find praying helps me to find acceptance when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

 

IN SUMMARY – THEY’LL SURVIVE EACH OTHER & I’LL SURVIVE THEM

Thanks for listening to my grumblings.  Two weeks of school holidays are coming to an end I’m feeling a bit worn out by the bickering.  Jake and Thomas are the cause of each other’s highest highs and lowest lows in a day and it’s been a rollercoaster ride for me too.   If I can see their squabbling as one of those necessary stages all children pass through – like newborn nightime feeding and the toddler “whys?” – it might help.  Getting up multiple times a night and answering a barrage of inane questions made me borderline-wretched too…but I’ve lived to tell the tale.

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

 

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