Friday, August 17, 2012

bullies2buddies experimentation

Last post I described an intriguing theory to manage sibling rivalry and my concerns about it. 

A few months ago, Jack was sitting on Aharon and beating him up, and Aharon was screaming (Jack 2, Aharon crawling).  My usual policy when that happened was to merely lift Jack off of Aharon.  Don't blame, don't expect self control, do separate.

Testing the theory that the boys love each other, and although Jack is clearly under the grip of aggressive desire, he doesn't truly want to hurt Aharon and will respond to his distress, I let the cries get worse and didn't move him.

Jack watched me, puzzled, sitting on Aharon, not getting off of him, and clearly wondering why I wasn't stopping him.  Aharon cried.

I waited more.  Jack didn't get off.  Aharon cried louder.  I couldn't take it and I moved Jack.


This week, Jack (2.5) started bothering Aharon (14mo).  Jack pushed Aharon.  Aharon cried.  Jack kind of glanced at me, waiting for me to show some sort of disagreement with that decision or to comfort Aharon, which is what I would often do.  I looked away (feeling kind of sick).  Then Aharon went over and pushed Jack!  Hoo, boy, I thought.  Bad idea.  Then Jack started crying.  Then Jack pushed Aharon.  And Aharon smacked Jack.  And they were fighting and crying.  I was pretty uncomfortable.  The yelling was getting pretty loud.  Then it hit a pretty intense point, and they both backed away from each other, crying pretty badly.  I was profoundly uncomfortable.  Then they stopped crying and started playing with each other.  I blinked.


Elazar was on the beach, drawing a big circle with Xs in it for buried treasure.  Jack kept on deliberately stepping into the circle and on the Xs.  Elazar said, "Jack, stop."  "Jack, stop."  "Jack, stop!"  "Jack, STOP!!"  Jack was doing it on purpose to provoke him.  My wont was to step in and move Jack away.  Don't blame, don't expect self control, do separate.

This time I let it continue.  Finally, Elazar, exasperated, gave Jack a *thunk* on the chest.  "Jack, STOP!"  Jack stopped immediately.


Aharon was playing duplo.  Elazar started building a tower taller than himself.  Ordinarily, my policy is that the child who is building builds in a location that is blocked off from the destroyer, so the destroyer has no access.  Don't blame, don't expect self control, do separate.  However, the destroyer was playing first, so it wouldn't be fair to pull him out of the room.  Even with some legos, he'd still feel upset.  Naturally, he went over and knocked down Elazar's tower.  Elazar was upset.  "Aharon knocked down my tower!  I'm so angry at him!  Aharon, I'm angry at you!  I'm so angry!"  Even all of this verbalization was not sufficient to cool his anger, and although I could see him striving to control himself, it burst out and he thumped Aharon on the chest: "Aharon!" *thunk* "Do NOT break my tower!"  As soon as he hit him, justice was restored in his mind, and the anger drained out of him and he went to rebuild.  Aharon began crying hard and came over to me, muttering and he hit me.  (Either he was passing on the aggression or he was telling me what happened.)  He muttered more and hit me again.

I was in a lot of conflict about this.  Clearly Elazar tries verbal communication first.  Clearly, Elazar feels better once he's hurt the person who has hurt him--but is that something I want to teach my children?  The animalistic law of the jungle?  If someone hurts you, then hurt him back?  Then you'll feel better?  I sat there, holding a crying Aharon, feeling conflicted.

Elazar looked up.  He said, "Aharon!" and he did a silly jump and flip so that Aharon would laugh, which he did.  He coaxed Aharon over and gave him a hug, and patted him, and said, "Don't break my tower, ok?" and Aharon said, "Ya."


So I think I will try to continue observing with this and see what happens.  I'll keep you posted!

PS.  As I was walking today, Jack and Aharon were in the umbrella stroller (Aharon sits and Jack stands behind him), and Jack started rat-a-tat-ing on Aharon's head, and Aharon started mildly complaining.  According to the theory, am I supposed to just leave that alone?  See if it gets bad, if Jack will back off?  I opted for my usual: "Gentle, Jack, gentle."  Jack started rubbing him gently, and I praised him.  I don't know if I would have left it alone, if they would have ended up fine.  But I also don't know how they would learn to be gentle if it isn't taught.  Would it come naturally?  


  1. Do you get worried that one of your kids will underestimate or miscalculate the situation and cause serious harm? For example push someone into a sharp object or hit with something dangerous or in a dangerous place or push someone off of a high place etc..?

    The thing that strikes me is that you seem to have trust that a 2.5 year old can accurately assess the danger of how he is fighting and the potential harm and danger of the situation. Were always worried about keeping kids from small toys or plastic bags because we don't expect them to know what's safe or not so how is letting them fight different?

  2. Good point. One fascinating tidbit I picked up from Playful Parenting (by Larry Cohen) is that frequent roughhousing with the children, where I am the adult and can handle more force, and when I do say "ouch" and get upset when they are too forceful, gives them a lot of practice gauging exactly how much force they can use. I have definitely seen this with my 5 yr old, who is, after a fairly short learning curve, able to pull my hair or hit or pinch or punch with just enough force to get a mild yelp out of me, but not too much that I get irritated.

    I don't really have sharp objects and such lying around, because the entire environment is heavily childproofed (which I recommend strongly). I do think that if they are trusted, under supervision, to explore their environment, they get a strong sense of cause and effect without too much harm being done (but that's another post).

    I am NOT discussing situations of sibling rivalry where a child does not have a sense of impulse control and WILL seriously harm (ie draw blood or leave a bruise) if not stopped. I don't have enough experience to discuss that. I am only talking about basic tousling that most parents, myself included, are inclined to step in and intervene, when it is perhaps unnecessary.

    This does not mean to not be aware of the interactions going on. It means don't necessarily stop them from fighting it out. Observe what happens. Maybe it won't be as bad as you think. Maybe they are capable of navigating through it.

    If my kids were scuffling by the stairs, I might say, "Guys, you are next to the stairs.."

    Small toys and plastic bags can be choked on. According to bullies2buddies, many (most?) of the sibling interactions are not harmful, and our intervention is making it worse. In our quest to prevent any and all aggressive behavior, we remove many of the tools that evenly matched children use to mildly assert themselves.

    Most children, even when miscalculating the situation, will probably hurt their sibling more than they intended, but still not seriously. I still recall the time my sister lay in wait behind the doorway and attacked me with a pool cue.. no serious damage, though it hurt. And the time I threw a block at her (planning to hit her chest) and it hit her glasses and broke them--unintended consequence and my parents were angry, but no serious damage. Or the family joke about the time I was asked why I hit her in the stomach, and I said that I meant to hit her in the back, but she turned around. That was laughed at, but the fact is being hit in the stomach hurts a LOT more than being hit in the back, and that was my intention. No serious damage, though.

  3. what about verbal abuse? Screams: I will kill you, by the perpetrator, knowing that the other sibling will be extremely upset? Mean pinching, which, while does not draw blood, does leave a mark? Extreme teasing? Screaming at each other on top of their lungs?

    I am thinking about slightly older kids, and psychological damage; many years later, you were so mean to me, and mom did not do anything! Or, you were always manipulating me into things, and nobody took my side!

    (I remember pulling some of those on my sister, as a dominance and a prank, but she was seriously hurt, and NOBODY interfered).

    Maybe this is meant just for physical tussles between smaller kids.

  4. for an older child, i highly recommend going through the material that bullies2buddies prepares specially for children. it discusses with the victim how to navigate being bullied. how to handle teasing, nasty comments, physical and psychological torture and abuse. i didn't get into it in my post, but he has some very interesting theories about how to handle it from the standpoint of the victim, instead of trying to stamp out aggression, which is the current fad. he explains how the aggressor and the victim are engaged in a game. he explains to the victim the rules of the game and how the victim can win.

    again, one of my questions is: is it damaging to the victim to not intervene.

    however, i think bullies2buddies gives a good alternative to intervention between the siblings, and that is to help the victim handle it. in the parent guide, there are sample interactions of when the victim comes to you, and how you can help him or her navigate the abuse.