I groan as my three-year old son jabs his chubby fingers into my ears. “Good morning momma!” He chirps cheerfully. I bury my head into my pillow and try to ignore him. I work late nights at an urgent care so waking up at six in the morning is always challenging. Michael, however, is persistent and between pokes, jabs, and incessant chatter he soon has me routed out of bed. I leave him snuggled in the nice warm spot I just vacated on the bed while I blearily drag myself into the bathroom to shower.
I bask in the shower enjoying the warm water and putting the cares of the day off for a few more minutes. My serenity is suddenly jarred by thumps, shouts, and screams emanating from the adjacent bedroom. The shower comes to a precipitous halt. Hastily throwing on the nearest article of clothing, I throw open the door. Two startled, tear stained faces looked up at me from a jumble of blankets, pillows, and sheets.
“What is going on?” I demand, now fully awake.
“Michael took MY princess book and won’t give it back! Boo-hoo-hoo.” Cries 5-year-old Amy.
“But I had it FIRST! and she grabbed it from me.” Michael interjects, stamping his little foot for emphasis.
“Both of you to your rooms at once,” I command while taking the offending book from Michael’s clenched hand. “And not a word out of either of you until I call you.” They both sullenly climb the stairs while I put the room back together and finish getting dressed.
I used to dread having to deal with a fight. It’s so hard to figure out which one is actually in the wrong. I’ve tried numerous things to stop it: ignoring them, time-out, toy confiscation, I even had them wear the same shirt at the same time. None of these consequences have worked.
Recently it occurred to me that the reason my methods weren’t working was I was only addressing the outcome of a root problem: immature conflict resolution skills. How could I possibly expect my 3 and 5-year old to figure out how to resolve a conflict when I only punish them every time there is a fight? The punishment does make them not WANT to fight (they both hate the consequences) but neither of them have the skills necessary prevent a situation from escalating into a fight.
With this epiphany, I determined to channel my energy into fight resolution. It has been much more successful and I no longer dread fights. Rather, I now look at them as an opportunity to teach valuable interpersonal skills they will use the rest of their lives. Here’s how I do it:
After each child has calmed down (I send them for time-out in their bedrooms), I recreate the situation and then coach each child in a better response. We usually repeat it 2-3 times to practice. By the third time, both kids have forgiven each other and are usually ready to resume playing together.
The fight over the princess book was dealt with in exactly this way. After I was dressed, I spoke with each child individually for their version of the story. I was able to fairly accurately put together a likely scenario: Michael is lying on the bed and sees the princess book I read to Amy just before bed last night. He picks it up to look at the pictures. Amy wanders into the bedroom and sees Michael “reading” her book. She grabs it and starts to run. Michael screams, does a full on tackle, and retrieves the book. Amy screams. Mommy arrives on the scene.
After talking with each child I brought them downstairs into my bedroom and we recreated the situation. This time, however, as Amy walks into the bedroom and spies Michael “reading” her book I coach her to say, “Michael, that is my special princess book, may I have it?”
Michael looks up and says, “No!”
Amy’s lips start to quiver. I don’t force Michael to give her the book. Instead I coach Amy to say, “Michael, may I have it when you are finished looking at it.”
Michael starts to shake his head “no.” I intervene and coach him to say, “Yes, you can have it when I’m done.”
Then I take the book from Michael, send Amy out of the room, and we try again. This time I don’t have to coach either of them. The interaction goes smoothly. I have them repeat it one more time just to make sure they remember. The last time through Michael says, “Yes, you can have it cause I’m silly.” They both dissolve laughing and the fight is over. Soon they are happily playing “little people” together.
I head into the kitchen to fix breakfast and my foot brushes against a rectangular object. As I continue toward the kitchen, I lean over and pick up the discarded princess book.