Children attempt to control their environment, which means the people around them, through pity or threat. Most children come to rely on one approach more than the other. One child will display anger and threat while another just looks broken and hurt. Though the angry child appears to be the most aggressive and intolerable, the two approaches are equally selfish and equally repugnant. The one will grow up trying to settle all personal relationships in an explosive manner; the other will grow up to whimper and have “tender feelings.” Of course, some of us have grown up to become versatile, employing combinations of anger and emotional manipulation. Regardless of whether the lever is anger or pity, the end is the same: to get one’s own way, to be gratified in the senses, take what the other has. It is the lazy, selfish, self-centered approach to life.
The self-centered child is marked by constant conflict. I repeat: The self-centered child or adult is marked by constant conflict – self-centered children, self-centered teenagers, self-centered mothers and fathers, self-centered preachers and churches, etc.. Conflict is a clashing of interests – a difference of opinion as to who should be placed first, who should be most highly regarded. Children all want to be first. They want the most, the best; they want it now. At what age do they grow out of this? Somewhere around seventy or eighty, when their flesh dies. Nothing can stop it other than the sanctifying work of Christ; though early training can awaken the conscience to such a high state and discipline the soul to such a degree as to cause the child to grow into adulthood functioning in a most gracious and saintly manner. If you are the primary caretaker of a young child, you have the power, with the grace of God, to mold an eternal soul into the beauty of holiness.
What do you do with kids who just can’t get along, who fuss and fight all the time? The atmosphere is punctuated with, “Stop!” “No!” “Give it to me.” “Maaamaaa.” To exacerbate the problem, most parents take the side of the younger child, or of the girl, who is usually perceived as weak. Parents feel compelled to rush to the defense of the one who appears helpless, the one whose selfishness is manifested in hurt feelings and a persecution complex. The other child appears aggressive, but in reality they are both aggressively using their best weapons to get their own ways. It is a mistake to interpret conflict as aggressor and victim. Occasionally that is the case, but not usually.
Children are as smart as they are selfish. The ones who don’t have the personality or brawn to rule through intimidation will soon discover the power of playing the victim, thus eliciting parental power in gaining an advantage over their more explosive brothers and sisters. If the parents are blind to this ploy and are always intervening on behalf of the “victim” they will increase the tension, making a solution impossible. The one playing the victim and manipulating parents into running defense will just become more selfish; and the aggressor will become more and more angry as he or she feels the injustice. I see some families where the parents treat all their children as victims of the outside world. Everyone is an aggressor, treating their children unfairly. The parents constantly run interference to see that their children are not mistreated. Talk about conflict! Families with this persecution complex are constantly on edge.
When siblings are in conflict, regardless of who is at fault, for the parent to set up a habit of intervening, with the result of one child getting his way while the other does not—one a winner and one a loser—is to create a game where there is always the possibility of one of the “contestants” gaining an advantage by calling the parent in as arbitrator. The parent is the wheel of fortune. The child only needs to begin a conflict, and there is the possibility of coming out on top. “You win some, you lose some.”
Some children learn to manipulate their parents better than others. Deb and I were visiting in a home with young children. I try to appear to be listening to the adults, but I am usually observing the children. During breakfast, I observed the constant strain between the two children, a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. The little girl, having awakened bright and cheerful, was sitting at the table full of playful mischief. The mother awakened the little boy and carried him to the kitchen table, still sluggish with sleep and cuddled in his mother’s lap. Seeing the entrance of her brother, the little girl’s contentment disappeared and was replaced by a sleepy whimper, as if she were full of scary emotions. Mama sat little brother down and picked up sister. As soon as sister was snuggled into Mama’s lap, she threw her brother a smirking “ha ha” look. When the mother left the table, the little girl continued to do small, almost unnoticed offenses that irritated the older boy.
Later, while the mother was talking, I could look past her and see the two children playing. The cute little girl was obviously smarter than the clumsy brute of a boy. She was poised and controlled, while he was explosive and violent. Now, behind their mother’s back, the boy was trying to put the top on a castle he had constructed. The little girl “assisted” and mischievously caused the castle to tumble. The boy, having had his fill of this little irritant, went into a rage and struck his sister. I could see it was only a token blow, but she began to cry as if she had suffered first degree assault and battery. The mother, responding to the crying, turned around to see the poor little girl sitting on the floor in the midst of a broken castle, the victim of abuse. Standing over her was her angry assailant quaking with rage. He couldn’t explain his helpless feelings of injustice. But he knew that she had won again. He was carried into his room and spanked for bullying his poor little sister. As soon as Mother was out of sight, the little girl stopped crying, looking as if she had never cried at all, and smiling, said, “Brother is getting a spanking.”
We frequently see this sort of conflict in families. If this mother came to us for counsel, the boy would be the focus of her concern. She would tell how she had spanked him and made him say he was sorry, but he only grew worse.
The boy’s rage was a result of his feelings of misuse. Certainly he had the normal amount of selfishness, but nowhere near as much as the “precious” little girl. Taking pleasure in his spankings, she was actually more violent than he. Lacking brawn, with calculated coldness she just used her mother as the hit-man.
What can a parent do to break into this cycle and put a stop to it? As we have pointed out, the parents’ response is usually a part of the problem. The parent is thinking, “I just need to intervene more, spank more,” when, in reality, the children would be better off if the parents did nothing. As we have said, by arbitrating in favor of one or the other, parents are offering children the chance to gain ascendancy over the other. The parent who tries to discern which kid is at fault, punishing one and rewarding the other, is providing a continuing opportunity for sibling squabbles. The children are masters at bringing a situation to a head, with just the right scream or cry, which is a signal for the arbitrator to make an entrance.
So, if I as a parent am making the situation worse with my arbitration, should I do nothing? Doing nothing is not the only alternative to constant arbitration. There will be times when you must hear both sides and make a judgment, but it should be only occasional. Just make sure that when you do arbitrate, both sides feel they would have been better off if they had settled it themselves. Remember, the rule in child training is: Always make their negative behavior counterproductive. Determine what, in their passion or lust, they hope to gain from this, and see to it that the opposite occurs. When two children fight over who got the chair first, leave the chair idle for the evening. When they fight over who is responsible for the mess in the bedroom, let one clean it up and then mess it up again and let the other one clean it up as well. If they are always fighting over the swing set and the slide, put tape on it which declares it off limits for one day or one week until they both can come to you and declare that they have worked out a system to share.
When two of our children developed bad attitudes and started coming to Deb every half hour to tattle on the other, Deb just spanked both of them regardless of who did the tattling. No one ever said I sired dumb kids; they quickly discerned that the best course of action was to mind their own business. If your children learn not to bring their complaints to you, but continue to argue, listen until you discern what each hopes to gain and then deny each of them the indulgence.
One Mother told how she dealt with two boys who just seemed to have constant personality clashes. It appeared they just couldn’t stand each other. Now, according to our rule of child training (determining what, in their passion or lust, they hope to gain from this, and see to it that the opposite occurs), how would you cause these two boys to experience more of what they despised, which was each other, and less of what they wanted, which was distance? She taped their arms together, the left arm of one to the right arm of the other, shoulder to shoulder—and that with a sense of humor, not anger. Imagine these two enemies trying to coordinate every action to just perform the daily functions. She has some funny stories to tell. The boys think it’s funny now. I won’t tell you what happened when they tried to go to the bathroom. Can you see them trying to cooperate in buttoning and zipping, or pulling up an extra chair so the other can sit down? They had to cooperate to even walk through a door. Imagine them trying to dress, tie shoes. They soon began to see the humor in it and sought to cooperate just for the sake of survival. Today, the boys, now several years older, can laugh and tell of their experiences together without fighting over who was the best one-handed zipperer.
A father told how he dealt with two sibling enemies. When they just couldn’t tolerate each other any longer, he made them stand facing each other with their noses touching. It makes my eyes cross just to think about it.
“Oh, your breath stinks.”
“Yours smells like that dead cat we found in the tool shed.”
“Don’t press so hard; you’re making my nose flat.”
“Boy, my eyes are crossing.”
“When I look to the side, one eye is still seeing you.”
“Ugh, I’m getting dizzy.”
“I wish you were as tall as me, my back is starting to hurt.”
“Well I have to stand on my tip toes to keep your nose off my forehead.”
“Don’t talk so much; you just slobbered on my chin.”
“It’s a good thing neither of us has a cold.”
“I told you we should have settled it before Daddy heard us.”
“Yea, listen to him and the girls laughing.”
“What are you laughing at now?
“I was just thinking how funny this will look if we are still standing here when the postman comes. They will probable haul us off to one of those foster homes.”
“Oh, Mama will let us stop before he comes... She will, won’t she?”
We are not suggesting that you implement either of these methods; we just want you to see the principle involved. Again, the principle in training is to make the negative behavior counterproductive. Children who are so tired of looking at each other that they want to fuss and fight will think twice before risking a nose to nose confrontation. Children who have made it a way of life to complain of abuse will find it inadvisable to protest anything less than bloodletting when they know complaining brings deprivation and disapproval rather than sympathy.
You must relax so that your creativity can come forth. Never lose your sense of humor. Never allow yourself to cease to delight in your children. When their behavior is undesirable, ask yourself, “What do they hope to gain? What is their selfish motivation?” And then come up with a creative solution that will cause them to choose a different course of action the next time. If crime didn’t pay, there wouldn’t be any criminals. If children don’t profit from fighting and quarreling, they will choose another course.
One caution: This “cause and effect” principle assumes that you have provided a nourishing environment, a home of love and honesty. If parents are always fighting with each other, they will fight with the kids as well. If you have lost dignity with your marriage partner, you will not relate to your children in dignity. Maybe we will say more about this next month.