My kids love each other. They do. But last summer I thought I might lose my mind.
Day after day, hour after hour, for the first few weeks I was called in to referee. There were sharing tug-of-wars. There was yelling, fighting, tussling, and even some hair-pulling. There was “That’s not fair!” “I’m having it!” and lots and lots of “I’m telling Mooooom!”
So if you’ve ever wondered how to help kids stop fighting, here’s the crazy (but awesome) technique that transformed our house in just a few weeks. In our experience, it works with kids ages 3½ and up!
The Problems to Solve
I want to clarify upfront that this process takes time and effort up front–but it is solving more than just the fighting problem. It can be a pain to implement (I’m just being honest) but if you stick with it, it will pay off like you won’t believe. I can’t remember now the last time I refereed a fight between my 4 and 6 year old. And they are closer and more forgiving than I ever expected them to be at this age.
Here are the problems I wanted to solve when I tackled helping my kids learn to stop fighting. I wanted to:
- Stop being the referee of non-stop bicker-fests,
- Show my kids how to accept responsibility for their actions,
- Show them that they are in charge of maintaining their own relationship,
- Teach my kids–step-by-step–how to apologize in a meaningful way, and
- Teach them empathy for each other.
Right around the beginning of that perilous summer vacation, I finished reading one of my all-time favorite parenting books, The Entitlement Trap by Richard and Linda Eyre. (Check out more of my favorite books here.) They had an awesome solution for when their (nine!) kids fought, and I wanted to try it out. They called it “The Repentance Bench,” but at our house, it’s just called “The Fighting Step.”
The Eyre’s routine would help fix problems 1-3, but how could I teach my kids how to apologize for real, and practice observing the others’ feelings? A wonderful article called “A Better Way to Say Sorry” from Cuppa Cocoa–pinned long ago to my parenting board–provided the answer. I needed to dig a little deeper and spend a little more time verbally coaching them through a real apology.
The “Fighting Step” Routine
So, here’s how the fighting step routine goes, step by step.
- Somebody tattles and/or I notice a serious conflict getting way out of hand.
- I ask if they need me to “help them” on the Fighting Step, or if they can work it out themselves. (If things are really rough–hitting, screaming, etc.–I just send them to the step instead giving them the option.)
- The (angry) disputants sit down side by side on the Fighting Step. They love this. (No. They don’t.)
- All disputants have to stay on the step until each of them has told me what THEY (not their sibling) did wrong in the situation. To keep it from looking too biased or like I am casting blame, I always have the tattler do this first. If they can’t figure out what they did wrong, they can ask their sibling for help. They also love this! (Again. No. They don’t.) Once we’ve figured out who did what straight from each horse’s mouth,
- They take turns doing a four step apology. (via)
- They (gently) hug it out.
- “I’m sorry for…” (the behavior they did that was wrong or unkind)
- “That was wrong/a bad choice because…” (the why–I helped them figure out why each thing was wrong at first, but now they can usually think of a reason)
- “Next time I will…” (something they will do, like “next time I will wait for a turn with that toy,” NOT something they won’t do, like “next time I won’t grab your toy.”)
- “Will you forgive me?”
(Usually by the end of this, the offended parties feel a little bit more vindicated and understood, and will agree to forgive each other.)
A Fight in the Post-Fighting Step World
Raise your hand if the Fighting Step sounds like a fun activity to you!!!
Guess what?! The kids don’t think it is a fun activity either!!!
So now when they tattle or get into an altercation, we pretty much just do steps one and two. It goes like this:
Step 1 (Someone tattles)
Kid A: MOOOO-OOOOOM!!!! KID B HIT ME IN THE FACE WITH A POTATO!!!
Kid B: NUH-UH!!! KID A WOULDN’T SHARE THE POTATO!!!
Step 2 (I offer to mediate on the fighting step)
Me (matter-of-fact-ly): Huh. It sounds like you guys are having a tough time. Would you like me to help you out on the Fighting Step, or do you think you can work it out yourselves?
Kids A and B exchange a knowing glance. Together: Work it out.
Kid A: Excuse me, Kid B, can you please not hit me with the potato.
Kid B: Yes. Can you please share the potato.
Kid A: I can share it when I’m done with it. Do you want to have the carrot while you wait?
Kid B: No, I want the potato.
Kid A: Okay, how about you have the potato and then can you give it back when you finish?
Kid B: Yeah.
Boom. Resolved. Without Mom!!!
I know this is so wonderful that it sounds like a lie. But we’ve been doing this for well over a year, and this is actually what happens most of the time now. Now and again someone feels so wronged that they are willing to put in their time and humility on The Fighting Step just to get their sibling to admit wrong-doing. And that’s fine. But usually they avoid it at all costs. Even if that means sharing without being forced to do so by Mom.
A Little Perspective
Now, this isn’t actually magic.
It is a lot of work up front, and the first week or so my kiddos were on the step ALL. THE. TIME. Like, multiple times a day. Sometimes within minutes of their last trip there. We ALL hated it. But once they learned (over time) that this was the way things were going to be, they started to think twice about just what they could and couldn’t work out for themselves.
A few months out they were on The Step (isn’t it intimidating how it’s capitalized?) a couple times a week. Now they probably only make it there once or twice a month.
We have also had to practice all kinds of situations so they know the nice way to behave. (My kids actually say “Excuse me?” really politely when they address me/each other sometimes because I’ve taught them the exact intonation and words to use in conflicts.) We’ve practiced:
- how to share,
- how to ask for something (an open hand with upturned palm instead of grabbing),
- how to say the four step apology,
- kind voices,
- kind words, and
- what to do if things still don’t go your way when you’re doing everything nicely.
My Favorite Part
More than anything else, I love that this process has given them OWNERSHIP of their OWN relationship.
The way they approach things now is way more meaningful than if I were forcing them to share/stop hitting/etc. and say those lame insincere “sorry”s all the time. They understand that their relationship is between them, and they are in charge of dealing with it–if a parent is involved, it is only as mediator, not as judge and jury. They are also learning that they both contribute to a fight (even if it is “only” by retaliating when someone else “started it”), AND that their actions can both hurt and heal their siblings.
This process is one of my favorite things I’ve learned to do as a mama. I love to see my little people love each other and be friends.
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