If it’s any consolation, you’re not delusional. When another parent asks you how often your kids fight, you almost certainly respond with some variation of constantly. Not only are you right, you may even be low-balling things.
According to one study conducted by psychologist Laurie Kramer of the University of Illinois, during a 45-minute play session, the average pair of children in the three- to- seven- year-old age group engage in more than 2.5 conflicts. That factors out to 3.5 every hour, or one argument every 17 minutes. And by conflict, Kramer doesn’t mean a single-volley remark or an aggressive physical bump that goes unanswered. She means at least three sequential, hostile exchanges in a row. A related study by psychologists Michal Perlman of the University of Toronto and Hildy Ross of the University of Waterloo focused on sibs from two to four years old and found that in that age group, hostilities break out an astonishing 6.3 times per hour – or one fight every 9.5 minutes.
The cause for a playroom war can be just about anything. Sometimes it’s an errant poke. Sometimes it’s a look. When Larry Stone, now a national baseball reporter for The Seattle Times, was younger, his older sister knew she could elicit a reaction simply by fixing her eyes on him during dinner and refusing to look away. “Mom,” he’d cry, “Esther’s gazing at me!”
What parents want to know – have wanted to know since the species began to breed – is what to do about the constant hostile shelling. Is there a way to broker lasting peace among siblings? Well : no. But there are a few basic truths and a few straight-up tricks that you’d be wise to keep in mind.
Fighting Is Good: Not good in the can’t-wait-for-the-next-screaming-match way, but good in the sense that it’s normal and educational. Kids fighting are like kittens wrestling – even if they’re exceedingly loud kittens. The bite on the neck one littermate gives to another is not designed to kill, but once the skill is learned, it will be lethal – and essential when applied to a mouse. Siblings similarly practice for the disputes, arguments, and, yes, occasional physical exchanges of later life by rehearsing them in the home. Learning the right lessons is the key. Scientists such as Ross, conducting long-term studies – observing very small children at home and again later, when they’re a bit older – find that the ones who acquire good conflict resolution skills at home tend to be less likely to get in playground brawls at school.
Don’t Touch My Stuff: No matter how bad the dust-up, your kids are probably not arguing about much. The most common provocation among siblings – no surprise – involves property. Small children have almost no control over their world, and what little they do have, concerns their possessions. While kids are perfectly willing to encroach on the property rights of another, they can’t abide someone else trespassing on theirs. “In one of my papers,” says psychologist Catherine Salmon, of the University of Redlands, “we found that 95% of younger siblings and 93% of older siblings mentioned that the taking of property was a major problem in their relationship. It’s a very important part of the development of personal identity.” One in-depth study reported the encouraging find that in the majority of cases observed, the property dispute gets settled in favor of the rightful owner – an early sign of the innate sense of fairness with which all humans are encoded.
You Ain’t the U.N.: Unless the kids are killing each other, you really and truly don’t have to referee every match. Parents get very good at listening for the sounds of a dispute that’s spinning out of control, and sometimes the battles indeed just run their course. But complete laissez-faire doesn’t work either – and not just because it’s your job to keep the kids safe. One Canadian study from 2009 observed 45 pairs of siblings in various age groups as they tried to work out sample conflicts. As a rule, the kids got the job done faster when the parents weren’t involved, but the lessons they learned did not have quite the same stickiness. Significantly, kids do a better job of remembering to justify their demands (the difference between “I want this toy:” and “I want this toy because…”) when parents help them. They also tend to remember the resolutions they reach so that they can apply them to the next similar fight – the same way kids improvising a game will codify it as they go along with the declaration: “From now on, the rule is…”
They’re Not Really as Insane as They Seem: Children – by their age, nature, and lack of life experience – will always be domestic anarchists. That’s a fact that moms and dads, long since socialized into the ways of conflict avoidance and peaceful resolution, often forget. There is genuine wonder in the voice of a parent who asks, “What did you think would happen when you touched his toy?” or “Why must you always tease her when you know she gets upset?” But the thing is, the child often didn’t think in the first case and truly doesn’t know in the second. If kids needed as long to learn, say, the concept of gravity as they do to learn how to get along with their brothers and sisters, no amount of mom or dad pleading “But you know that egg will break if you drop it” would suddenly give them a full understanding of Newtonian physics. Brothers and sisters do learn to make peace, though, and parents can take some consolation that in that learning, the kids also acquire deeper stores of empathy, wisdom, and deep love for their brothers or sisters.