why i let my kids fight (CAPC series)

img_4445*For the past several years, I’ve been contributing to an amazing site, Catholic Attatchment Parenting Corner. (What can I say, I’ve really got a thing for niche-writing, yeah?) Due to all kinds of life circumstances, the site won’t be live for much longer, and the editor and creator of that site will be focusing solely on her other (wonderful) endeavor, Intentional Catholic Parenting.  So I decided to run a few of my old articles as a little mini-series, so they can find a new forever home here. Some of them are recent, and some of them were from a few years ago, but I hope they all speak to the experiences of different stages and moments in motherhood. *

Why I Let My Kids Fight

And no, it’s not because I’m starting a baby fight club. Or because I’m lazy. Or because I think I need to “toughen them up.”

This title might surprise those of you who know me. I’m a pretty gentle parent. I take my kids’ feelings and thoughts seriously. I strive for kindness and peace in my relationship with them and try to foster that in their relationship with each other. So why do I let them whale on each other sometimes? It’s all about forgiveness, baby.

I kind of came upon this concept accidentally. I had a quick, important phone call to make, and left the kids peacefully playing Legos in the living room while I stepped into the bathroom. (What, isn’t this where you go to make important phone calls?) Obviously, as soon as I began this important conversation, I heard shrieks coming from the living room. Yelling. Screaming. Your average toddler and preschooler brawl over the Lego they both want. But I was somewhat stuck — I had to finish this phone call and hope that when I emerged, things would still be salvageable. A minute later, my call ended and I unlocked the bathroom, ready to admonish someone (whoever looked guiltier? whoever wasn’t bleeding?) for being unkind and kiss any booboos, emotional or physical, of the innocent party. But what I saw when I opened the door stopped me in my tracks.img_3638_2

My 4 year old was kneeling on the ground, hugging his little sister, saying in a soothing, quiet voice, “I’m sorry, baby. I know you wanted that Lego. I’m sorry I hit you.” And to my surprise, she replied, “I fine. I fine.” As they sensed my presence, they both turned and looked at me like nothing had transpired. They returned to playing happily until the next argument broke out, as they inevitably do.

But it got me thinking. As a parent, I am constantly putting myself in the position of referee. The moment I hear someone cry, I spring to attention and ask, maybe for the 20th time that day, “WHAT happened?!” I then try to figure out who did what to whom (not an easy task), tend to the victim, chastise the aggressor, and basically, in the end, everyone is angry and crying. But what I witnessed that day gave me an alternate view of how it could be. When I don’t jump in to punish (or even gently admonish them to “be kind”), it takes away the immediate defensiveness of the one committing the error. It leaves room for genuine regret that they hurt and upset someone they love. It gives them an opportunity to make it right of their own accord. It allows them the chance to take responsibility for their actions, without me having to guess exactly what those actions were and respond accordingly.img_3128

And maybe most importantly, it gives the one who’s been hurt a chance to forgive. Because when I step in and deal with the aggressor in these fights, I rob both kids of the chance to be the forgiver and the forgiven. I insert myself in the middle and act as both. And that’s not fair. Because it’s not nice to fight, but there is joy in being merciful and showing mercy. This might seem like a stretch when talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, but so often, when given the chance, our kids will surprise us when given the opportunity to forgo parental justice in favor of sibling forbearance. And doesn’t it follow that if we give our kids practice in being merciful that they will grow up to appreciate mercy as a very real and vital virtue?

Since I had this epiphany, I’ve tested this theory many times, and the results have been pretty consistent: my kids want to forgive each other. They want to make it right. And I can’t help but notice the other effects it has on them. When they are playing together and my little one gets hurt, instead of immediately turning to me, she will often cry her brother’s name and turn to him for a consoling hug before quickly getting back to their game. Sure, I still kiss my fair share of booboos and break up some fights before they get ugly. Some days it feels like that’s all I do. But giving my kids some space in their arguments and disagreements has been fruitful in a surprisingly real and glorious way. No referee whistle necessary.

4 thoughts on “why i let my kids fight (CAPC series)

  1. I love the idea of this, but I’m having a hard time putting it into practice. I have a domineering 8 year old, a soft-hearted 6 year old, and a stubborn 3 year old. It seems when left to their own devices, my 6 year old caves in or sacrifices to appease the other two. Or things just seems to escalate, escalate, escalate…

    If you know of any resources on how to model this to my kids, I’d be quick to check them out!

    1. It’s such a tough balance, and this doesn’t ALWAYS work out nicely… I find it helps when I give the child who comes to me sympathy and comfort, without addressing the aggressor right away. It gives me time to cool down, it gives the offending child time to calm down and feel remorseful, and it also gives the offended child time to calm themselves so that they are more forgiving when the apology or hug comes. But I also have one who is domineering and one who is a pleaser… it’s so hard to know if I should let it play out like that or when I need to step in. Man, parenting is such a mystery sometimes! I really like what Janet Lansbury has to say about managing conflicts between kids and I think her website is helpful- I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement and practical ideas there.

  2. Psychologist and Parenting author, Barbara Nelson, suggests a somewhat ‘hands-off’ approach to fights as well. She wrote “Positive Discipline”, and numerous other spin-off books, and has a website that might reveal some of her thoughts on just this topic. I’ve found her approach to fights has worked well in our house. Basically, she angles it from the perspective that if you sweep in and ‘save the victim’ and then punish the aggressor (or who you think fill these roles as it’s sometimes hard to tell!) then this isn’t actually useful for the kids in the long term. It’s just repeating a pattern. The ‘victim’ potentially reads that they are helpless and need saving, and the aggressor can feel discouraged and then may want to seek revenge. She basically suggests things like standing back and seeing if they can find a solution and that if must punish then treat both kids equally. I’ve found it useful in my home.

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