Sunday, June 26, 2011

Weekly Column: Digging Deeper than Our Prejudices

Early summer birdsong chirped through the open kitchen window as I plowed through a quick marathon of dish washing.  The kids were playing on the front porch with a new box of sidewalk chalk, and happy noises mingled with the occasional spat of authority or indignation as they colored together. 
As most peaceful childhood scenes will do, after awhile, this one disintegrated with a little one’s tears.  She came screaming inside, wailing with fury over something, but unable to stop crying long enough to explain the details to me.  I looked her over and found a bit of helpful evidence, though: on her arm, there was a sister-sized handprint clearly outlined in blue and green chalk.
Usually, the cause of argument or physical harm isn’t quite so clear.  Both girls are crying or pointing fingers, and each one has a different reason for blaming the other.  Even in the case of the chalked-on handprint, I knew there was more to the story.  The likelihood of my older daughter hitting her little sister for mere entertainment isn’t very good – she must have felt justified in her actions.  Detective mom needed to be on duty to sort through the evidence.
When siblings fight, it can be so easy to walk into the room, see one crying, and automatically punish the other one.  The squeaky wheel always deserves the oil, right?
Not always.  We parents must be honest about the ways we’ve labeled our children before we blaze onto the scene, handing out discipline without first getting all the details.  It could be the usually aggressive little brother beating up on the passive big brother.  If that’s what we expect to see, the big brother can end up blaming everything on his more aggressive sibling, and know that his parents won’t suspect him for a minute. 
In order to make accurate assessments both about what transpired a few minutes ago, and how to proceed with discipline, the whole truth needs to come out.  That means that we have to listen to all sides.  If we’ve kept the channels of communication open so the kids feel comfortable telling us the truth, that’s what we’ll hear. 
And what I heard that morning was this: little sister joyfully refused to budge out of her big sister’s path of chalk.  The irritation of her request being unheeded was too much for a 5-year-old to handle without erupting into anger, and she hit her sister on the arm. 
There was no fairness in only disciplining the hitter; the disrespectful sister had to be addressed as well. 
For the hitting, there was appropriate discussion: it’s never, ever okay to hit somebody, even if they’re making you mad.  There are plenty of ways to deal with that anger, but hitting will only get you in trouble and cause pain for all involved.  Then, there were apologies and consequences.
For the not-budging after being asked repeatedly, there was also discussion: when somebody asks you to stop doing something irritating, you have to respect those wishes.  How would YOU feel if your sister kept getting in your way or ruining your work?  Then, as with the hitting, there were apologies and consequences. 
It all works out fairly, but only if we get to the bottom of the fight.  Thankfully, as our kids grow, they gain the ability to explain what happened in argumentative situations.  But it’s up to us to be prepared to hear them without prejudice.

[Online version here.]


  1. When my sister and I found our way to tears (often), my mom would say, it takes two to tango and both of us would get a time out. As the youngerone, I often got hit but in fairness I bugged my sister terribly to earn those hits.
    Its harder right now for me with a bigger age gap. Different things are expected of a six and two year old, and rightly so.

  2. And (in an announcer like voice) once again the award for parent of the year goes to......
    I love your wonderful insights and the way you handle situations and then that you share it all with everyone! If only all children were as lucky as yours! Well done.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?