My two sons, aged seven and nine, don't get along. They seem to find something to fight about on a daily basis. It's exhausting. I've tried scolding them, shouting at them. I don't know whether I should spank them, as my parents did me. Any advice?
Siblings often don't get on. You've managed to exercise restraint so far; shouting and smacking children won't solve it.
Children know when you are tired and frustrated, and they have an uncanny ability to test you when you have the least energy to resist. Parents tend to adopt a "firefighting" approach, in that they just react to the situation when it happens. Why not be less passive and prevent the problem happening? There are lots of things parents can do to help children to get along better and work through conflicts in positive ways.
Research by the Danish Centre for Research in Institutions has found that shouting can be viewed by the child as being as detrimental as if you had smacked them. Certainly, we have to stop children immediately if they start fighting. You have to separate them and give them time to calm down. You can help them to reconcile and deal with the conflict. When it is settled, you need to tell them that fighting is not the solution. It is important for parents to be role models. If you smack them for fighting, you're just reinforcing their bad behaviour.
If it's not an all-out fight between the two siblings, then try to stay calm and see if they can work out their own conflicts, but remember that younger children will probably need you to help structure the problem-solving process. Children are sensitive, they may feel that the other gets more attention. Try not to take sides or favour one over the other. Get them settled first, then ask both what happened before carrying out any discipline. Research indicates that jealousy is more intense if the age difference in siblings is less than five years. As your boys are nine and seven, it is not surprising that they have difficulty getting along.
Parents have to let each child be who they are, and try not to label them in any way. Enjoy your children's individual successes and talents. If jealousy is more likely the cause of the problem, talk to them about how precious they both are to you. As parents, we have to spend time talking and listening to children, so it allows them to share their true feelings and grievances honestly. Correcting bad behaviour is essential, but helping them to cope with their emotions is even more important. Stop shouting so that you can hear them, and let children be children. Get them to talk and share their feelings, and give them time.
Parents should bear in mind that being fair does not mean being equal. Different privileges should be offered because of the age difference. Encourage them to participate, imagine and create happy moments for the family. They can help plan family activities that are fun for everyone. Have them write down things they want to do together, put all those ideas into a box and pick one whenever your family is looking for something fun to do together. Also, you may join other families to run a mini-Olympics, or they may help to prepare a family day trip, cook for the weekend meals or design a board game. There are ways to create happy experiences for children, memories that they can share as they grow and strengthen their relationship. Whether fighting siblings is solved or exacerbated often depends on a smart parent.
Dannis Au is a former principal, a father of three, contributor to a parenting blog and author of the book Close to Daddy