If you can’t stand to stay out of your children’s fights, and decide to become involved, the most effective way is to put your children in the same boat. Do not take sides or try to decide who is at fault. Chances are you wouldn’t be right, because you never see everything that goes on. Right is always a matter of opinion. What seems right to you will surely seem unfair from at least one child’s point of view. If you feel you must get involved to stop fights, don’t become judge, jury, and executioner. Instead, put them in the same boat and treat them the same. Instead of focusing on one child as the instigator, say something like, “Kids, which one of you would like to put this problem on the agenda,” or, “Kids, do you need to go to your feel good places for a while, or can you find a solution now?” or, “Kids, do you want to go to separate rooms until you can find a solution, or to the same room.”
Mrs. Hamilton noticed two year old Marilyn hitting eight month old Sally. Mrs. Hamilton felt that Sally had not done anything to provoke Marilyn, but she still put them both in the same boat. First she picked baby Sally up, put her in her crib, and said, "We’ll come get you when you are ready to stop fighting." Then she took Marilyn to her room and said, "Come let me know when you are ready to stop fighting, and we’ll go get the baby."
At first glance this may look ridiculous. Why put the baby in her crib for fighting when she was just sitting there, innocently, and doesn’t understand Mom’s admonition anyway? Many people guess that the purpose of treating them both the same is for the benefit of the older child to avoid feeling always at fault. Treating them the same benefits both children. When you take the side of the child you think is the victim, you are training that child to adopt a victim mentality. When you always bully the child you think started it, you are training that child to adopt a bully mentality.
We can’t know for sure if Sally provoked Marilyn (innocently or purposefully). If she did, reprimanding Marilyn would not only be unfair, but it would teach Sally a good way to get Mother on her side. This is good victim training. If she did not provoke Marilyn, reprimanding Marilyn (because she is the oldest) would teach Sally the possibility of getting special attention by provoking Marilyn. Marilyn might then adopt the mistaken belief that she is most significant as the bad child.
Still, people object that it doesn’t make sense to put a baby, who did nothing wrong, in her crib. Okay, okay. I’ll give you another alternative, but first I want to explain again. The point is not who did what. The point is that you treat both children the same so one doesn’t learn victim mentality and the other doesn’t learn bully mentality. Surely, the baby won’t be traumatized by being put into her crib for few seconds. Another way to put children in the same boat is to give them both the same choice. "Would you both like to sit on my lap until you are ready to stop fighting?" Do or say whatever is comfortable for you—so long as they are treated the same.
I can still hear objections. But, what if the older child really did hit the younger child for no reason? Shouldn’t the older child be punished? Shouldn’t the younger child be comforted?
Since you have read this far, you know that punishment is not an alternative. It is such a ridiculous example to give to children: "I’ll hurt you to teach you not to hurt others."
I suggest you comfort the oldest child first, and then invite her to help you comfort the youngest. Again this is not rewarding the oldest child for starting it. It is recognizing that, for some reason, the oldest child is feeling discouraged. Maybe she is feeling dethroned by the youngest. Maybe she believes you love the youngest more. The reason isn’t important right now. (Dealing with the belief behind the behavior is.) It is important to know that she feels discouraged and needs encouragement.
Encouragement might look like this: "Honey, I can see that you are upset." (Validating feelings is very encouraging.) "Would a hug help?" (Hugs.) Can you imagine her surprise to receive love and understanding instead of punishment and distain? After she feels better you might say, "Would you be willing to help your little sister feel better? Do you want to give her a hug first, or do you want me to?" Can you see that these gestures encourage loving, peaceful actions?
Suppose the older child is too upset to give you a hug, or to want to hug the baby. Still, make the gesture. Then say, "I can see you aren’t ready yet. I’m going to comfort your sister. When you are ready, you can come help me." The baby is not going to suffer that much more while you take a few minutes to comfort the oldest—and you will avoid victim training that could invite the baby to decide, "The way to be special around here is to provoke my older sister."
If you are hearing these methods with you heart, you will get the idea. Put yourself in the shoes of your children. What would help you the most and teach you the most? And, don’t forget to use your sense of humor.
One father would stick his thumb in front of his fighting children and say, "I’m a reporter for CBC. Who would like to be the first to speak into my microphone and give me your version of what is happening here?" Sometimes his children would just laugh, and sometimes they would each take a turn telling their version. When they told their versions of the fight, the father would turn to an imaginary audience and say, "Well folks. You heard it here first. Tune in tomorrow to see how these brilliant children solve this problem." If the problem wasn’t diffused by then, the father would say, "Are you going to put the problem on the family meeting agenda so the whole family can help with suggestions, or can I meet you here tomorrow—same time, same station—for a report to our audience."
When adults refuse to get involved in children’s fights or put the children in the same boat by treating them the same for fighting, the biggest motive for fighting is eliminated.