As you can imagine in a home with 9 children we have had a lot of opportunities to deal with sibling squabbles and it is one of the questions that we have been asked repeatedly, “How do you deal with arguing, fighting and tale bearing?” Our answer: “What are you talking about, our children never argue, fight or tattle tale.” Complete sarcasm there, I couldn’t resist. 🙂
The simple answer is that we try to deal with arguments among our children by using the pattern that Christ gives us in Matthew 18 for dealing with arguments among brothers.
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
This is how it works in our home. Let’s use the example of child A taking a toy away from child B. The first step would be for B to say nicely to A, “A, I was playing with that toy, will you please give it back to me?” If A gives the toy back to B, then the disagreement is over and ended, just like in verse 15. If A refuses to listen then child B comes to mom or dad and calmly tells us what happened, per verse 16 then mommy or daddy help settle the dispute. (Here is how we deal with sin while showing love to our children.) Obviously we have never had to appeal to the church, but that is an option if we ever have an older, rebellious child.
How a sibling squabble should look:
- When child B comes to tell mom or dad something that child A did, our first question is always, “Did you speak kindly to A about your problem?” If B did not then B is in trouble for not obeying mom and dad by speaking kindly to their sibling first. If B is young enough to need a reminder, we remind them and then possibly help them role play through the process. (We do this for children who are still learning to speak.)
- If B did indeed speak kindly to A then A is in trouble for sinning against B and for not repenting when confronted with his/her sin.
- If A tells us that B began the whole problem then we pull both children together, get the whole story and deal with each one as needed.
- If B did not tell us the whole story, (For example they took the toy away from A first or they hit A after A took the toy away.) Then we deal with B for lying. If they are young we usually prompt them with a question to help them remember that they need to tell us the whole story. “Why did A take the toy away?”, “Did A have the toy first?” or “What did you do?”
- After each child has been dealt with, the offending child/children must repent and ask forgiveness of the child/children that they offended. In this example, A would say, “B, I was wrong for being unkind by taking the toy away from you, will you please forgive me?” B would respond by saying, “I forgive you.” and they would hug.
- The offending child/children must also repent and ask God to forgive him/her. So child A would pray, “Dear God, I was wrong for being unkind to B by taking the toy away. Will you please forgive me and help me by your power through the Holy Spirit to be kind to my sister/brother.”
- One exception is if one child is physically violent to another child then the offended child may come directly to a parent and skip the first step.
To teach our children how to do this we role play with them. Let’s say things went wrong. Child A took the toy away and then child B yelled and grabbed the toy back and …. Mommy hears the ensuing scuffle and comes into settle the dispute. After dealing with the obvious sin, I will give the toy back to the child who took it away and we will role play how the disagreement should have been settled.
We begin this process of confrontation and repentance as soon as our children begin to use words, generally around their first birthday. Obviously, we guide them step-by-step through the process, it goes something like this:
Big kid takes a car away from baby and baby begins to scream. Mommy comes over and says, “Baby, no screaming!” and gives baby a swat on the hand, hugs baby and then asks, “Did big kid take your car away from you? I’m sorry, but you may not scream. Come ask big kid to give your car back.” Then Mommy guides baby through the words to say and baby says, “mama sss ma ma ma ma.” Which of course means, “Big kid please will you give me my car back.” Now mommy and baby wait for big kid to respond. If big kid gives the car back, mommy praises both baby and big kid for being kind and handling the disagreement in a godly manner, problem solved. In some cases big kid may need further instruction and usually big kid needs to repent and ask forgiveness for taking the car away in the first place. All arguments should end with hugs. It is amazing how quickly our children have caught on to this. It is not uncommon to hear baby babbling and then to see big kid hand a toy back, sometimes they just need a little reminder.
This training requires more work on the parents part than just letting them fight it out, but the reward is a more peaceful home and children who know how to solve conflicts Biblically. Like almost everything worthwhile, it takes time, hard work and patience in order to see long term results.
Some parents have said that children need to learn to handle disputes on their own and that by our constant supervision we are teaching them to be dependent on mom and dad whenever they have a conflict rather than teaching them how to deal with it independently, i.e. without any parental involvement. Our perspective is that if Jesus in Matthew 18 instructs his disciples to get help from others in a conflict where one brother will not listen to another brother, it seems a bit presumptuous for us to expect our children to work out difficulties more independently than these grown men. In our experience, we deal with a lot of conflicts when our children are small, but once they reach age 3 or 4 the amount of fighting subsides. We still frequently deal with unkind speech, but probably only deal with direct conflict between our children (excluding the two youngest) a few times a month, perhaps less.
Here are some other rules of behavior in our home:
- No screaming, yelling, hitting, etc. All of these things are dealt with before we even hear what caused the problem.
- No physically taking anything away or picking up/moving a sibling unless they are a danger to themselves or others. For example, if Nicholas (1) has a marker which he is not allowed to have, no one, except mom or dad, has the authority to physically take it away. They must say, “Nicholas, please give me the marker” and wait for him to give it to them. If he doesn’t then they proceed to step 2 and come tell mommy.
- Big kids have a responsibility not to boss little ones around. They may remind little ones of the rules. (No running upstairs, no jumping on the couch, etc.) and they may make requests of the younger children (Please don’t touch my knitting, will you please quiet down?), but they must be very careful about giving commands.
- Little kids have the responsibility to obey bigger kids. If a big kid reminds them of a rule (no running upstairs) and they continue to disregard the rule, then they are in double trouble, 1. for disobeying the rule and 2. for not heeding wise counsel.
- All the children have the responsibility to respect their siblings. If someone makes a request, we expect that request to be obeyed or for the child to appeal to mom if they aren’t sure it is a reasonable request. They may not just ignore a request.
- Occasionally Mark or I will give authority to a big kid to watch the little kids. When this happens the little ones must obey the big kid even if they are being unreasonable. (This is different from asking one child to keep an eye on another child, rules number 3 and 4 apply to that situation. This is when mom and dad are going out and will not be immediately available.) We have never had the little children disobey a bigger kid in this situation, probably because of #7
- We only give authority to children who have proven themselves faithful in little things. If a child is not faithful in their chores, school work and relationships we do not give them authority over their siblings.
- If a big kid is unreasonable when given authority they are corrected and loose the privilege. (We have never had to deal with this, probably because of #7.)
- In order to train our big and little kids for this type of authority shift, we will give a big kid a task to help a little kid complete. (Help little kid to get his shoes on.) We teach the little one to obey their older sibling sweetly and the older sibling to serve the younger one by being kind and making it fun.
- Speak kindly.
Here are some rules that Mark and I try to follow:
- Pray specifically for each of our children and for each of their relationships every day.
- Be within earshot of the children, so that we can hear if there are disagreements. We have found that our children are all too happy to deal with disagreements independently. There have been a couple of times that relationships have suffered because of long term unkindness that was not properly dealt with.
- Be consistent. Don’t ignore screaming (or anything else) just this one time.
- Don’t let the baby act like a brat just because he/she is tired/hungry/teething/ate too much sugar. Be understanding (maybe they need some extra hugs), but don’t simply excuse bad behavior. (We had no problem with this with our older children, but we need to remind ourselves more often with our younger ones.)
- Don’t skip repentance, forgiveness and hugs. Our kids need to know that the relationship is restored. This is obvious with our little ones. When they have sinned they repent, usually without being asked, and as soon as they are finished they throw themselves into our arms and get a huge snuggle.
How do you handle sibling disputes?
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