Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This Mommy Refuses to be a Referee

(this article appears in the 5/17/11 edition of The Review Atlas as a part of a weekly Practical Parenting series)

"He hit me!"

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"He hit me first!"

I hadn't even gotten one sip of my first cup of coffee when already my boys were dragging me into one of their brotherly disputes. How could they expect me to be a fair referee so early in the morning? Oh, that’s right! They have no appreciation of my time or me. It’s just another glorious start to another glamorous day in the life of a mother.
At twelve and eleven years of age my sons are typical boys. They are rambunctious and physical. And they never fail to break the first rule of our home; keep your hands to yourself.

Admittedly this rule was drafted solely because of them. Usually they are the only ones who break it with obscene frequency. My boys also share a room, bunk beds and a closet. Add up all these facts and I wonder if it is even reasonable to expect they should be able to get along?

I will admit that playing referee for my children is something I avoid at all costs. I strongly believe that kids should be taught how to work out their own differences. This skill not only comes in handy at home, giving parents a much needed break, but also in the classroom where disagreements are certain to rule the playground.

Ebay 2002
However, be ye fair warned; it’s no easy task. Children are relentless when it comes to tattle-taling and unless you create a system for them to work out their own difficulties you might find yourself playing judge all day long. And as someone, who’s gotten splinters from sitting on the high and mighty bench of justice, trust me when I tell you … it is no fun!
First, be concise and clear when explaining how the kids should treat each other. We used to have a no hitting rule in our home. But inevitably my boys would punch, kick or wrestle and argue "But I didn’t HIT him!" Not to be outsmarted I amended the house rule to "Keep your hands and body to yourself".

 Secondly, unless there is a legitimate injury or emergency give no ear to the tattle-taler. Each and every time your child brings an injustice to your attention you send them back to the perpetrator. "Did you tell Sam _____ (fill in the offense)? Well, I think you should go tell him that you didn’t like that and ask him not to do it again!"

This is not to say you don’t empathize with the defendant. If your child is seriously crying or harmed in some way you should tend to their needs. But for you to jump in and take over, dishing out punishments and yelling is actually unhelpful.
What does help is when you can teach kids how they are expected to handle broken rules and hurt feelings. If I allow myself to get caught up in the infraction I will no doubt disperse a judgment that is certainly unfair to someone. Haven’t you taken care of a dispute only to have a bigger drama on your hands? Like more tears and bigger fits or is that just me? Inevitably I then feel like retracting my ruling (which actually makes matters worse) and the whole scenario is drawn out much longer than it has to be.

This method works on even young toddlers. From the time they can begin to put two words together they can tell their sibling "No hit!"
The Bros
The other problem with tattle-taling is the fact that the child doing the reporting usually spins the story in his favor. "He hit me!" is really half of the story isn’t it? If sibling rivalry does require your intervention try to stay outside the problem by asking your child "What happened right before he hit you?" Maybe the tattle-taler hit first. Maybe he took a toy. Maybe he turned the video game system off before his brother had time to hit save (a common infraction in our home).

Listen, no matter how you handle family squabbles one thing is for sure; as long as there are brothers and sisters there will be rivalry. Save yourself some time, energy and sanity by giving your children the tools they need to work out their differences on their own. Unless you’re prepared to live in that long black robe of justice for the next decade I recommend removing yourself from the drama. Why? Because I’m the mom and I said so! That’s why!

 Stephanie Sikorski is a mother to five children: a teenager, two boys and twin girls. She starts each day with massive amounts of coffee.

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