Quarreling and bickering among siblings are painfully common in family life. It seems that the natural child is an enemy not only to God but also to brothers and sisters.
While children are declared innocent because of the atonement (D&C 93:38), it is also true that “when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts” (Moses 6:55). Everyone who works with children knows that they can be not only charming, sweet, and delightful, but also selfish, pouty, and demanding. They are not automatically or naturally cooperative and peace loving.
How can parents prevent contention between their children?
The natural parent
There are two popular methods for dealing with sibling conflict. One is parental intrusion. Parents separate the children or punish them for their contention. This method can only work as long as there is a parent available to intervene in the conflict. Even if this method interrupts the conflict it does not solve the problem; children do not learn new ways of dealing with their differences with their siblings.
The second method is lecturing. The main problem with lecturing is that it doesn’t work—and it generally insults and demoralizes children. Children respond to accusation with defensiveness; they blame their siblings and excuse themselves. The result is an increase in the contention in the family.
Parents almost universally will agree that we want loving and helpful relationships between our children. But how can we make this happen?
Helping children find something better than quarreling
Imagine that your 5-year-old daughter wanders into her older brother’s room. He is concentrating on building a Lego structure. Sister picks up some Legos to do some building of her own. He grabs the Legos from her, pushes her toward the door and shouts that she should stay out of his room. Little sister runs to you crying.
You are frustrated and angry. You are tempted to lecture your son about being kind and inclusive with his sister.
But this response does not teach your son to love and serve. What would God have you do? The vast research on moral development together with God’s perfect guidance can help us establish five steps.
1. Engage your son in a gentle way. Harsh approaches arouse anxiety and block learning. When we are upset, we are not able to parent effectively. We may need to take time out to get peaceful. If a situation requires immediate action, we might invite our children to also take a timeout in their rooms to prepare for a productive dialogue. God counsels us to use persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and genuine love. It is important to get his attention without arousing fear: “Son, we need to talk. Your sister is very upset by the way you treated her.”
2. Give your son credit for anything you can: “I’m sure you didn’t intend to hurt your sister’s feelings.” We are often tempted to magnify the misdeeds in order to get our children to take our message seriously. Yet when we “exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved” (D&C 121:37). In contrast, when we see our children through the lens of charity, we set the stage for love and learning. When we appreciate their good intentions and sincere striving, we are more likely to find common ground.
3. Show that you understand your son’s point of view: “You just wanted to build without being distracted or interrupted.” Compassion is the key to connecting. When accusation rather than compassion is in our hearts, we alienate. When, in contrast, I see from the child’s point of view, I am able to guide effectively. Compassion is the heart of the healer’s art.
4. Draw the child’s attention to the distress of the victim: “When you ordered your sister to leave you alone, she felt sad. She felt that you don’t like to have her around. Maybe she even felt that you don’t like her.”
There are really two parts to this step. Just as the Lord teaches us in our minds and in our hearts (See D&C 8:2), so we must inform our children’s minds and hearts. Both are essential for right behavior.
We teach the mind about the law of the harvest. When we are unkind, we damage relationships. Instead we invite the child to learn his sister’s point of view: “I think your sister just wanted to be with you.”
We also train our children’s hearts. We gently invite our children to feel love and compassion for their siblings. “You might not know that your sister looks up to you. She wants to be like you. I hope you can find a way for her to be with you while still accomplishing the things you set out to do.”
The objective in this approach is not for your son to be sunk in guilt but to be stirred to empathy and compassion. When we use harsh approaches with our children, they focus on their own distress and are likely to become stubborn and defensive. That’s not what we want. We want to help our children get outside their provincial view of their own needs and be able to see the needs of others.
We cannot rush this process. When the child protests, “But she is the one who messed up my work!” we do not have to argue. We return to the third step, showing understanding for his point of view: “It’s pretty frustrating, isn’t it!” When the child feels genuinely understood, then he is ready to learn in his mind and in his heart.
Help the child to feel genuine compassion for the one he has hurt. Naturally your child will resist your challenge: “She can’t start grabbing Legos when I’m building something.” If we want our child to show compassion, we must model compassion. Rather than squabbling with the boy, we can show empathy: “It’s hard when you’re in the middle of a project and she interrupts you or starts using your Legos.” When we show him compassion, he is more able to show compassion for his sister. It may take several rounds of expressing understanding and compassion before he is ready to show compassion for his sister.
5. Once the child feels understood and is calm and peaceful, then we can help the child think of a way to make repairs: “How could we help your sister feel loved and welcome without messing up your project?”
When hearts are right creativity can rule. “Maybe I could help her build a house” or “I could provide her with some of the blocks.”
Any parent might reasonably protest that this process takes a lot of time. You’re right! Parenting is not quick, simple, or convenient. Parenting is a large and continuing sacrifice. Yet it is also true that, when we teach children correct principles, they are more likely to govern themselves in righteousness. An hour spent teaching them in their youth can save years of conflict, struggle, and waywardness.
In the midst of sibling conflicts, it is common to try to figure out which child is the offender. This is rarely productive. Rather than try to weigh offences, we invite all toward repentance. In the above process, the focus was on the son’s repenting, but a parallel process could operate with the daughter. We could show her compassion and help her understand her brother’s need to be able to concentrate.
Of course this approach is not the perfect one in all circumstances. When a child is in danger, action is needed more than instruction. When a child is so tired or upset that reasoning is not possible, some time for calming is called for. When a child is holding a parent hostage—requiring them to prove their point to the child’s satisfaction—this is not the right approach.
Getting our hearts right
Perhaps the greatest challenge to effectively teaching children is that we simply cannot do it right unless our hearts are right. We cannot teach them the principles of love and goodness while bubbling with anger or annoyed by distractions.
The Christlike parent recognizes our dependence on God, calls out for mercy, continues in prayer, and draws on the power of heaven. In parenting as in all things, He is the way, the truth, and the life.
Invitation: The next time contention arises between your children, rather than add more contention, see if you can bring the peace of compassionate teaching as outlined.
Recommendation: For applied approaches to parenting, see Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child or John Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
For more about the science of parental control, see Martin L. Hoffman, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice; John C. Gibbs, Moral Development and Reality; Wendy S. Grolnick, The Psychology of Parental Control.
This article is a revision of an article previously published at Meridian Magazine. Thanks to Barbara Keil for her excellent editing.