Tips for Parents to Reduce Fights Between Kids

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

I presume you had a time or two when you were driving on the interstate with kids sitting in the back.  As you were about to approach the upcoming town, you concentrated hard on the traffic approaching from all directions, and a voice came from the back seat," "Mom, he pushed me."  Then came another voice from the back seat, "Mom, he pushed me first."  Then the claims of innocence, "I didn't mean to.  I was just stretching my legs."  Before you knew it, they were at it again.  This was in spite of the fact that for days prior to going for vacation, your kids continued to give you assurances that they would not fight and be at their best at all times.  Before leaving home you even reminded them of the promises they had been making to you.  You screamed, "I told you both, I don't want any of this to happen on this trip," and you heard, "Mom, but he (or she) started it first!"  

What parents find even more frustrating is that both kids after the fight try to convince you that the other one started it first and both of them are capable of making a forceful case for themselves.  Each is outraged that the other one is outright lying and "I didn't do anything, why are you blaming me?"  Whatever action you take to punish the little devils, you are bound to hear from both, "It's not fair!  He (or she) gets me in trouble."

To reduce fights between the kids, discipline both children and not just one, even if you think you know who the real "culprit" is.  We advise parents to not discipline just one child because they may base it on their past experience.  Since they know which of the kids is a habitual instigator, they may become biased and presume the guilt.  Kids have real subtle ways of provoking each other and parents can't always tell who really instigated the fight.  Each child claims that the other one started it first.  No matter how good parents are in picking their cues from kids' faces and from the tone of their voice, sometimes, they can be wrong.  Determining guilt becomes even more difficult as children often incorrectly believe in their innocense and may be genuinely outraged by the behavior of the other which in fact was a response to their own behavior.  Many times, children blame  other siblings and truly believe in their accusation but the facts from an adult's point of view may be opposite.  

The exception to the rule of disciplining both kids can be made under the following condition:  if you were closely observing them right from the minute they got together and you didn't take your eyes off them even for a moment.  You clearly saw that one child initiated the provocation and the other child did not retaliate to such a provocation.  Be sure that you witnessed the whole sequence of behavior.  If these conditions are met, then you may say, "I don't need to listen to who did what, I saw the whole thing."  The kid who is getting in trouble with you will still try to convince you that you missed a vital piece of information, or that is not all that happened.  He or she may also bring up what happened that morning or couple of hours earlier.  Don't engage in any debate.  Just  ask the instigating child to pay the predetermined "cost."  Asking the child to pay the cost for a "don't" behavior is a form of discipline or punishment.  Let me give an example of our family which explains how to use this system.  

This is what we worked out as parents to reduce the fights between our children.  When kids were small, we would give them a small allowance, a quarter every day as they came to the breakfast table.  That was their allowance for being nice kids but also as a cash to pay for the "don't behaviors."  Incidentally, as they grew older, we progressively increased the amount.  If they did not lose any money for "don't behaviors" then they got to keep the entire amount.  On the other hand, if they fought, argued, or called each other names, both were to go to their "money bowl" and pay a nickel each time (cost increased relative to allowance given).  If they stared fighting again after paying the cost, which happened very infrequently, each would pay a nickel again.  We did not explain, discuss, or listened to their "ifs and buts."  It did not matter who started first and whose fault it really was.  They simply had to pay the "cost."  This greatly reduced fighting episodes between them. At the first sight it seems unfair to "punish" the innocent and the guilty alike, but in the long-term it works out evenly for both.  

However, I still remember one evening, the two little faces wore a stern expression all afternoon, and briefly whispered something to each other.  Both of them came marching to me and dished out a quarter each and said, "Dad, we do want to fight today."  Then I realized how much I had been depriving my kids of the "real fun" that could only come out of a hearty fighting.  I said, "Children, let me tell you the rules of fair fighting."  I quickly made a few rules of fair fighting, such as, no cussing, no twisting of fingers, no fighting with pen, pencil or any other object, no throwing or breaking anything and I topped it with an advisory, "Just don't hurt each other."  I wondered to myself, how on earth they will fight with rules like that.  But they went to the other part of the house and had their fight.  Whatever, they did, it worked for them because when they came to the dining table, pure contentment was written all over their faces.  


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