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I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Sometimes my kids get along great, but like most sometimes they clash. I've been trying to work on substitutions to my usual model of rewards and punishments for many of my conventional parenting techniques. This one seems to exhaust my fuse faster than most. It is during those times that my rational brain caves in favor of a quick fix. Usually, I justify this as getting me back to whatever task I'm doing. When there is no conspicuous cause, and I need to get back to the task at hand; the frequency seems to increase exemplifying my technique's failure.

I've tried for these situations to be more than negligent on my part. Sometimes, I will give them a task to share, but I also believe they should have idle time.

I understand that kids have good days and bad, and also that some of this may be a request for attention. I'm really looking to step my game up with some new ideas. Here are some techniques I use, that I'd like to transcend:

  • Timeout (punishment) - This is a quick way to get some separation, and (if I can quickly determine the culprit) get the child to spend some time reflecting on their actions.
  • Privilege suspension (punishment) - This is very hit and miss. I typically have better luck with other options.
  • Lecture (punishment?...) - I'll try to talk through the situation, listen to sides, pick a winner, mansplain things until their eyes glaze over. This is the most dubious for me as I tend to struggle with bloviating. I'm coming from a place of truth-seeking, and validation. I want them to feel listened to, and understood, but then I generally pick all the low hanging fruit of lesson opportunity.
  • Offer a reward - I understand that doing this can create a dependency I don't want to sustain.
  • Placating (distraction) - Give them something else to do, maybe change their environment, perhaps split them up, or call in spousal reinforcement.
  • Crazy exercises (distraction/punishment) - For instance; write 3 nice things you like about your sibling.

Maybe I'm too impatient for natural consequences, or simply unfamiliar inside the experience of my own up upbringing. After a while it starts to feel like the attention alone seems to be both punishment, and reward. I recently started to lecture them on this causal relationship and the resultant wasted time impacting the whole family. It sure would be nice if knocking their heads together worked as well as it should.

  • Re 'privilege suspension' - what goes wrong? What happens when you try? – A E Mar 28 '15 at 8:42
  • I'm not sure why you've categorized separating them as "placating" -- sometimes kids simply need their own space, I guess? Having some time apart for the problem to blow over is typically my solution, while pointing out that "sometimes brothers and sisters need some alone time and that's OK". – Acire Mar 28 '15 at 12:12
  • @Erica, I see separating them as only altering the original state of their interaction and not resolving the actual issue at hand. I'll agree that they need alone time, however I'm looking to help them figure out how to get along together. – Matt Mar 30 '15 at 16:42
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    All of the items in your list demands adult intervention, it doesn't let the kid figure out by themselves how to fix their problem. This is much time consuming at the beginning but I would suggest you look at how to involve negotiation in your everyday life and then help the kid negotiate themselves out of their problem instead of you "fixing" it. The goal is to act as arbitration instead of using force. – the_lotus Mar 30 '15 at 18:15
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    @the_lotus, you are correct. Ultimately, that is my target. I feel it would be helpful if you expanded this out a little bit and turned it into an answer. Specifically the part about how to involve negotiation such that it works without intervention. Thanks for the comment! – Matt Mar 30 '15 at 18:24
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I've never punished my kids for not getting along but I have gotten angry with one or another for improper behavior (e.g. over-reacting, escalating too far, endless teasing just for the fun the torture, etc.). I just explain, though, in a calm and normal voice why the behavior is incorrect. In general, I only break in if one is obviously hurt or really upset and the other doesn't yield.

If they come to me, I pick from:

  • You two work it out. Don't bother me unless there is blood.

  • Do you really want me to work it out? I promise that both of you will dislike the result.

  • Ah, an easy fix! Here's some extra chores for both of you.

  • Why don't you both go enjoy your own rooms for a half-hour.

In short, I make sure that they're always both better off working things out between themselves.

I developed this when I watched a younger child irritate the older until the older strikes out and then the younger go to a parent and complain that "he hit me" and get the older in trouble... which was the plan from the beginning. (Which is why I don't punish for not getting along.)

  • When my children come to me asking for help or a solution, that's something I wouldn't "punish" (you don't get punished when you call the UN) but when I have to break up their fight or constant bickering, I'll use your suggestions 2-4. There is rarely blood involved because for some reason the only rule that seems to have stuck with them is "no hitting inside the family". They both have become quite proficient with cutting remarks, though, and found this technique often more effective that physical force with other children. (Aehm, so this parenting aproach might have backfired....) – Stephie Mar 29 '15 at 5:39
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    I've never had my kids come to me with a fair (and calm) difference if opinion (as you would with the UN). It has always been some kind of "he did this" or "she did that" and expecting me to punish the infraction. I do listen first and make sure I understand and they know I understand but then make sure they both wish they has worked it out for themselves -- an easy thing since they are always both guilty to some degree. – Brian White Mar 29 '15 at 12:40
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    I'm a little torn by this answer. I'd really like them to be able to work it out on their own, but not force that through fear of me making things worse. I feel a good leader is one people can brings problems to because they can also expect useful assistance. This feels too much like telling them not to bother with me, and that's not a message I want to send. – Matt Mar 30 '15 at 16:49
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    @Matt, something that works well with this approach is giving them the tools to decide things among themselves. Take the chance to demonstrate different approaches to conflict resolution when you are with them. E.g. if both want the same thing then they could take it in turns (a cooking timer can help with this), or flip a coin, or one-person-splits-and-the-other-one-chooses. Then when they come to you, you can ask them what they've tried, and if you give them a new approach then in future they might be able to do it by themselves. Only works with certain kinds of conflict of course. – A E Mar 30 '15 at 16:55
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    @AE, I was likely writing my own answer to this effect when you posted this comment. I have tried coin-flips, paper-rock-scissors, and timers, but I've not specifically told them they can do the same when I'm not around... That's a fantastic suggestion. Thanks! – Matt Mar 30 '15 at 17:37
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+150

The most effective solution I've tried has also typically taken the longest to implement. For that reason I don't really feel like it's the answer I'm seeking, but for completeness I want to submit it for review.

Part of the criteria for them getting my attention, or assistance for conflict resolution is to prove to me that they took appropriate steps on their own first. I have adopted this from watching my wife, and I'm very thankful for it. The first thing I say if there is no obvious need for immediate intervention (e.g. blood, or inconsolable crying, etc) is some variation of the following:

  1. Did you use your words? ...(e.g. meaning instead of imposing physicality)
  2. Did you tell him/her you didn't like that?
  3. Did you remind him/her that this is against our rules?... (e.g. Are you tattling?)
  4. What have you done to try to solve the problem yourself?

This puts the onus back on them a little bit, but also let's them know I'm listening to them.

At that point, depending on the nature and severity of the conflict I'll try (if patience allows) to put on the moderator hat. I'll essentially sit down with them and listen to one tell the other their feelings. Then I'll translate the expression in my own words trying to make discrete substitutions cherry picking emotional, or inflammatory parts and mixing in logic and reasoning. I'll repeat the translated expression to the recipient and ask them to respond. I'll continue to do this as they talk back and forth. I really try to leave the bulk of their original message in tact. Having me there helps to ensure they play by the rules and nobody gets to leave until a solution is agreed upon. That last part is important because often in a conflict one party will get bored, or frustrated and simply terminate the discussion by leaving, or escalating.

When it's successful, this approach tends to make everybody feel like they won. The main problem I have with it, is that as you might expect it can take a long, long time. On a bad day I can see this absorbing hours of my time, and if it's at all about getting attention; I'm giving them exactly what they want. I need them to appreciate that I'm busy working on my own tasks and need larger chunks of uninterrupted time in order to be successful in my own endeavors.

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TL;DR: More praise, more reminders, less punishment, less lecturing when emotional.

I found that to encourage the siblings to get along, this works the best:

  • Praise the child when you see the desired behavior (when they do not fight, or even when they do fight, but less than usual).

  • Remind the child of the desired behavior in advance, e.g., "Please be nice to your sister" before they start playing.

  • Put less emphasis on punishment, since it is less effective than the above methods. If you do punish, make it immediate and short-term (e.g., separate them or take the game/toys away within minutes of the misbehavior, and allow to go back to normal within minutes to hours).

  • Try to minimize lecturing when the child is too emotional, e.g., in the middle or right after the fight. The child in the "hot" state is much less receptive to analytical thinking and understanding the moral lessons, no matter how obvious. Reserve the serious conversations for the time everyone has cooled down, so that emotions interfere less with the higher-order thinking.

I found this book to be very useful: The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child: Alan E. Kazdin, Carlo Rotella. It is geared towards the behavior of children from about 1 year old to young adults, but works for adults too. The book offers a more "behaviorist" psychological approach. It has many specific examples and practical suggestions. The books is based both on published research and experience of the authors.

The book above is the best source, but this podcast gives a nice intro sampling (just a few examples, somewhat disorganized, and unfortunately not the best audio quality): Dr. Alan E. Kazdin: get kids to behave without stress 09/01 by amyalkon | Psychology Podcasts.

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