When Children Fight
By Miriam Levi
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Why Children Fight
Why do children fight? One theory is that fighting is an attention-getting device. True, children often do call in their parents, once the fight is underway. But if getting attention were their only motivation, children would not fight unless there were adults present. Yet their fights seem to be every bit as lively when grownups are not around. Another theory has it that all fights stem from jealousy — from sibling rivalry. Jealousy can be a big problem, and may well be a cause of many conflicts. But children do not confine their fighting to siblings, and jealousy does not always seem to be a factor.
Many different situations and emotions can trigger children’s fighting. They may be resentful about what they see as an unfair division of chores; they may be upset about another child trespassing on their territory or borrowing their possessions. They may be in a bad mood because of problems at school, or problems of a new neighborhood, or any other kind of problem — and are simply letting out their frustrations on anyone who is around. They may take another child’s toy just because it looks interesting, or doodle on another child’s notebook without thinking, without intending to start a fight. Or they may deliberately “pick a fight” out of sheer boredom. There may be underlying psychological motives, or there may not.
There is, however, one very basic cause which probably precipitates most fights. It is intolerance.
Children who fight are usually intolerant, either of the situation in which they find themselves or of each other. They then use aggressive means to settle their differences because they do not know any other way. In Chapter 10, we will discuss how to help children overcome such intolerance. And we will discuss how to give children the tools they need in order to resolve their differences peacefully. But for now let us focus on parents, and their response to their children’s fighting.
How Parents Respond
Parents differ in their responses. Generally, they have no particular plan regarding how to deal with their children’s fighting. They just “play it by ear.” Here are some of the more common approaches:
Method I — Playing Judge
Some parents try to step in to settle all of their children’s fights. They feel that, tiresome and burdensome as this may be, it is their duty to be the judge in all disputes, to play the referee. To this end, they conduct continual, lengthy, and careful investigations in their efforts to discover which of the children is the “guilty party.”
We are all familiar with the scenario: Yaakov, age 8, and Rivky, age 7, are in the playroom. Mom’s in the kitchen. Suddenly, bloodcurdling screams are heard, followed by sounds of scuffling. In dashes Mom.
Mom (yelling): What happened?!
Rivky: He started it!
Mom: I didn’t ask who started it. I want to know what happened.
Yaakov: She hit me!
Mom (to Rivky): Why did you hit him?
Rivky: He took my toy away!
Mom (to Yaakov): Why did you take her toy away?
Yaakov: It’s not hers! It’s everybody’s!
Mom (to Rivky): It’s not yours. It’s...
Rivky: But he grabbed it while I was playing with it!
Mom (to Yaakov): Why did you grab it while Rivky was playing with it?
Yaakov: She had it long enough!
Mom (to Rivky): Why couldn’t you give Yaakov a turn? Didn’t you have it long enough?
Rivky: No! I only had it a few minutes!
Mom (to Yaakov): She only had it for a few minutes. Why did you have to take it away?
Yaakov: She had it for half an hour!
Mom (to Rivky): Yaakov says you had it for half an hour.
Rivky: Yaakov’s a liar!
Yaakov: You’re a liar!
And so on and so forth. Eventually, Mom pronounces judgment:
Mom: Yaakov, you shouldn’t have grabbed the toy out of Rivky’s hands. Rivky, you have to share with Yaakov...and you don’t have to hit him either, when all he wanted was a turn.
What has been accomplished?
Method II — “Opting Out”
At the opposite extreme are those parents who “opt out” (or maybe “cop out”) of any and all involvement. Scenario: Mom is reading a book, when Yaakov comes running in:
Yaakov: Rivky won’t let me play with the firetruck!
(Mom absently, not glancing up): Well, go tell her she has to let you play with it.
Yaakov tells her; Rivky ignores him.
Rivky: Yaakov hit me!
Mom (absently): Well, go tell him it’s not nice to hit people.
Rivky tells him; Yaakov ignores her.
Not very effective.
Method III — Lecturing
Some parents react to their children’s fighting by preaching to them. Favorite topics on which to lecture are “Brotherly Love” and/or “The Special Responsibility of the Oldest Child”: “You children should know better. You should love each other — not fight with each other! The oldest child in a family has a big responsibility to set an example of proper behavior. The other children are supposed to listen to him and look up to him and respect him and...”
However, fighting children are angry children. They are in no mood for sermons. So these parents’ words usually fall on deaf ears.
Method IV — Direct Intervention
Other parents rush into the “thick of battle,” size up the situation (accurately or not) at a glance, and take to task whichever child seems to be at fault: If Shifra is crying, she must be the “victim” and Yoni must be to blame. One problem with this approach is that, while Yoni may indeed be the cause of Shifra’s tears, the parent doesn’t know what “poor little Shifra” may have done to provoke Yoni’s aggressive behavior. Besides, children have old scores to settle; Yoni may well be getting back at Shifra for something she did to him the day before.
But victims are not always treated with kid gloves either. When they come to complain, they may be told, “Come on, Shifra. I know Yoni’s not hitting you for nothing — what did you do to him?” Shifra then feels bitter and is likely to go back to try to settle the score on her own.
Method V — Arbitration
Sometimes parents attempt arbitration. For example, they will try to persuade one child that the other did not intend to be mean or to hurt him. But the child is usually left unconvinced and parents often end up in an unpleasant argument. This is especially unlikely to work if the peacemaking is attempted during the fight.
Method VI — The Last Straw
At times, parents feel they simply can not take any more fighting. It seems as if they have heard nothing all day but “He hit me!” and “She started it!” and “He took my toy away!” and “She called me a pest!” The parents’ exasperation gives way to anger, and they scream, “I can’t stand another minute of this awful fighting! Stop it! Do you hear me?!” Slaps and spankings may then be distributed all around. “I don’t care who started it — you’re all getting it!” Such reactions of anger and violence may help the parents feel better for the moment, but they are hardly examples from which children can learn how to solve conflicts peacefully.
So What Should Parents Do?
None of the above methods seem to go very far toward solving the problem of children fighting. Some even appear to aggravate the situation — to cause additional fights, in a seemingly endless spiral. Yet, except for the last-mentioned “solution,” there is really nothing wrong with any of these approaches, per se. We will be using some of these approaches with, however, significant twists. For instance, there are times when intervention is appropriate, but we will never play judge. Some situations may call for nonintervention, but in a constructive — certainly not a “copping-out” — manner. Similarly, admonishment and arbitration skills might be used, but not in the heat of anger or battle.
Aside from basic differences in the way we will use these methods, there are also some essential guidelines that apply to dealing with fighting (and all our dealings with our children). These are:
Be calm, speak calmly.
Focus on the child’s welfare.
Adopt a problem-solving approach.
See the child in a positive light.
See yourself in a positive light.
Elevate children spiritually.
Of these guidelines, perhaps the most crucial is being calm. In the following
two chapters we will expand on this strategy.