Refereeing in my family fight club
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