Ref­er­ee­ing in my fam­ily fight club

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

The chil­dren are bick­er­ing over Bolog­nese. I’ve cooked a pot of it, scooped out a spoon­ful and asked who wants a taste. As there’s loads of the stuff, it seems ridicu­lous that they’re squab­bling over the sin­gle spoon. But my chil­dren, es­pe­cially the younger two, aged seven and nine, will quar­rel over any­thing. Petty yet se­ri­ous dis­putes have been sparked by such state­ments as: “Your heart stops when you die.” “Nine is ‘no’ in Ger­man.” “You woke me up.” “Air can be harder than the wall.” “Ev­ery­thing in France isn’t spelt in French.”

As I fee­bly at­tempt to re­solve the Bolog­nese row – “Oh come on now! Don’t be silly!” – and am ig­nored, char­tered clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Ang­harad Rud­kin calls for our sched­uled chat about how to stop your chil­dren bick­er­ing. While some might clas­sify this as a prob­lem Lite, its per­sis­tent, point­less na­ture, the sense of fail­ing as a fam­ily, the sour at­mos­phere, the teeth­grind­ingly dull cir­cu­lar­ity – it can all be pro­foundly dispir­it­ing, and make you want to flee the house. And yes, I am speak­ing for my­self.

That said, one feels guilty whing­ing be­cause, sub­se­quent to the con­fis­ca­tion of ev­ery­one’s weapons, this isn’t a life-threat­en­ing is­sue. So I’m re­lieved when Dr Rud­kin in­sists that bick­er­ing is “not to be un­der­es­ti­mated. The stress can ruin your day. Fam­ily time is not plea­sur­able when chil­dren are bick­er­ing.” How­ever, she adds, “It’s an ab­so­lutely nor­mal and in­evitable part of daily life, and be­lieve it or not, you wouldn’t want chil­dren who don’t bicker. That would be very, very odd.”

No, no, of course we don’t want the vi­vac­ity and pep crushed out of the lit­tle dears. Still, no dan­ger of that in my house: ev­ery time I dis­ci­pline a child, another chips in sternly with his own rep­ri­mand – un­der­min­ing my au­thor­ity, and prompt­ing another inane squab­ble. I find it re­mark­able. I also fret that I’m in­ef­fec­tual as a mother, and my kids hate each other: vi­sions of fam­ily schisms, es­tranged sib­lings, fu­ture grand­chil­dren not know­ing their cousins…

So it’s good to dis­cover that their snip­ing has a de­vel­op­men­tal pur­pose. “It’s a way of chil­dren prac­tis­ing what they can get away with,” says Dr Rud­kin. “They’re pro­ject­ing their anger, frus­tra­tions, on some­one who is never go­ing to leave them. Dur­ing the day, they’re try­ing to do what teach­ers say, deal with dif­fi­cul­ties such as friends say­ing hor­ri­ble things – they’ll come home and take it all out on their sis­ters and brothers. It’s a safe way of ex­press­ing your dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the world.” This rings true: their be­hav­iour at school is far bet­ter than at home.

En­cour­aged, I also speak to con­sul­tant clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist David Spell­man. He warns against that mod­ern temp­ta­tion to “pathol­o­gise every­day life”, while agree­ing that “when it per­sists for hours, it can drive par­ents to the edge of despair”. Yet, re­as­sur­ingly, he be­lieves, “Bick­er­ing can be another way of ex­press­ing close­ness. We don’t tend to bicker with peo­ple who are ir­rel­e­vant to us. It’s not al­ways de­struc­tive, though it can be te­dious, dis­tress­ing, and very hard.”

It strikes me that as much as they are beastly and goad­ing, my chil­dren can be af­fec­tion­ate and fond (ad­mir­ing sketches of Spitfires, ren­dered faint at the de­li­cious­ness of savoury rice cooked in a tech­nol­ogy class).

Per­haps I fo­cus too closely on the neg­a­tive, and over­look their kind­nesses and com­pro­mises. And it’s a Eureka mo­ment when Spell­man adds, “If chil­dren don’t feel they have a par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties, and ask your­self, ‘Is this telling me some­thing im­por­tant that I need to pay at­ten­tion to?’”

A clue is that my chil­dren, dif­fi­cult en masse, are, alone, de­light­ful. And yet, it’s not al­ways pos­si­ble to di­vide and rule. They do have to live un­der the same roof – and cope with that. Mean­while, I haven’t quite fi­nessed my own cop­ing meth­ods. I favour di­rect in­ter­ven­tion: last week I found my­self shriek­ing, “He’s right! Your heart does stop when you die!”

Bet­ter for the blood pres­sure, says Dr Rud­kin, to agree some rules: “No one will hit any­one else in this fam­ily. You will not swear. No spit­ting – what­ever it is!” This al­lows you to limit in­ter­fer­ence: “If they’re bick­er­ing and you hear a slap, then you in­ter­vene: you’ve bro­ken the rule, here’s the con­se­quence – go to your room, re­duced pocket money, less iPad time.” But oth­er­wise, don’t get in­volved. As we all know, a par­ent wad­ing in in­ten­si­fies the row as you be­come Chief Bick­erer.

In­stead, let them try to find a res­o­lu­tion. As Dr Rud­kin says, “It’s a good op­por­tu­nity for chil­dren to learn ne­go­ti­a­tion, com­pro­mise, shar­ing, pa­tience. If you swoop in each time, they’re not learn­ing that. But give them some clues as well.” Re­gard­ing their beef over the Bolog­nese, she ad­vises, “Boys, you need to sort this out. There’s enough for all of you. Take it in turns!”

The week­end fol­low­ing my tu­to­rial is calmer than usual. I don’t dance around the chil­dren in im­po­tent rage like Rumpel­stilt­skin; I leave them to it. Or I dis­tract, es­pe­cially when they’re tired, hun­gry, or un­der pres­sure. How­ever, I’m re­minded that the con­struc­tion of Rome took an age. Mon­day be­gins with the seven-year-old po­litely ask­ing the nine-year-old whether he misses Natascha, our late cat. An in­quiry scorn­fully de­clared “The dumbest ques­tion in the world – do I miss some­one I love?”

“Or,” I mur­mur, “this could be the spring­board for a lovely con­ver­sa­tion…”

Boys will be boys: Anna has learnt to ap­ply some rules to feuds be­tween Os­car, Casper and Con­rad

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.