Screaming. Fists smacking into flesh. Hurled insults. Crashing sounds. No, I’m not describing a drunken Saturday night bar fight. I’m describing almost any day in my sunny living room.
I had no idea that once my kids grew beyond toddlerhood that my job description would change from primary caregiver to smackdown referee.
I have one of each. Each gender, that is. And when parents of boys tell me their testosterone-fueled males fight more than girls, I tell them they are mistaken. After all, I grew up with two sisters. We not only fought like gold-belted WWE-ers, but we were able to wound fiercely with that weapon women most love to employ: words.
My kids play well together until something happens—often something as minute as an annoying facial expression, a misplaced foot, or lately, a sentence meant to prick and prod. Then they’re brawling like miniature wrasslers on the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em tour. And I’m trying to pull them apart without screaming myself.
I do think kids need to learn to work through some of their conflicts on their own. When the squabbles seem minor, I try to ignore them. But I’m usually listening closely. I’m still the ref on the ropes, debating when to intervene. When I sense escalation, I enforce time-outs, negotiations and discussions of anger management. Sounds so rational, doesn’t it? In reality, I’m seething inside. I’m not an impartial referee.
In fact, watching my children hurt each other makes me want to, well, beat them. Not that I would, as at 43, I do have some measure of self-control. However, few situations make me angrier. I look at them, these beautiful kids whom I birthed and continue to nurture, who share more of the same DNA than any other two people on earth, and I think, “How could you hurt each other? How could you be mean to each other? What the hell is wrong with you?”
For example, my 9-year-old, who knows better, has perfected the art of the mean hug. If you saw her from behind, you’d think, “Ahhhh, ain’t that sweet? She loves her brother.” From the front, however, you’d see the grimace, the tightened arms, the claws around his neck—and the look of terror on her brother’s face just before he starts screaming, “Mmmmmmom” and stomping on her toes. He knows better too, but at 6, he can’t always control the instinct to lash out with hands or feet. And recently, as he’s gotten almost as big and strong as his sister, he’s been able to do some damage. So the ref has to be ready to move in fast. Or not, depending on the pitch of the screams.
I remind myself that kids, like puppies, can actually learn from fighting: how to read others, what’s going too far (blood), how to negotiate, and ultimately, some self-control. While kids also learn these skills from peers, there’s nothing like having an obnoxious sibling sharing much of the same space for hours on end to teach a kid how to manage their emotions. And their fists.
I realize that sibling squabbling is normal, and as I mentioned, possibly a learning experience. I realize, too, that my maternal protective instinct sends me spinning like a top when I see my babies hurting each other. What keeps me controlled, most of the time, is knowing that although they may hurt each other, they love each other deeply. If anyone else picks a fight with one of them while the other is nearby, that blood connection kicks in. They will stop harassing each other to confront the outsider. As my girl says, “I know my brother’s annoying, but the mean boy on the bus better watch out. He better not hurt my brother again.”
Then we discuss healthy options for dealing with the mean kid on the bus, like not sitting near him and telling the bus driver when he’s being a bully. That protective impulse my kids have for one another secretly thrills me. I’m glad they’ve got each other. Because, after all, I’m not allowed on the school bus. And if they don’t maim each other before adolescence, they could become a formidable team. They may never completely stop fighting verbally, and they’ll always know how to push each other’s buttons, but they’re the only sib the other has.
In the meantime, I’m wondering if they hire freelance referees for the local Toughman competition. I’ll be the one in the apron haranguing the boys to play nice.
Anne Fitten Glenn is a freelance writer based in Asheville. She covers a number of topics (including parenting) on her blog, www.EdgyMama.com.