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No, Kids, I'm Right

By Mike Snyder

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

A show of hands, please: Who isn't secretly -- or wide-openly -- happy that the holiday break is over and the kids are back to school? Whew!

I love my kids and treasure the familial closeness the holiday respite provides, but sometimes close starts to wear on my last nerve.

If you've been following along with my posts on my pre-school son's education delays, then you know we've seen some encouraging progress on his expressive language. The good news is that it continued through the holiday break. Unfortunately, what he's been expressing isn't always what we want to hear: For one, there's the potty talk. Even more annoying is the constant bickering with his first-grade sister.

Not that she's at all blameless, since she knows EVERYTHING already, and constantly looks to correct her younger brother. (And she's so wrong when she's right.)

Their arguments seemed to escalate exponentially the closer we got to the new year. If you've got more than one kid, I'm sure you know the deal: You're trying to make it through two paragraphs of a newspaper article as the background noise grows louder and louder until it inevitably ends in someone -- usually big sis, in our case -- yelling scornfully, "Da-a-ad, 'X' just said 'Y' and he/she is wrong and won't listen to me. I'm right."

Enter the referee. I reviewed, mediated, arbitrated and blew a few close calls, I'm sure. As often as not, they were both wrong, though when I pointed that out, I drew derision from one or both offended parties.

So, it got me to thinking, why was it so important for me to resolve these matters? Sure, I want my kids have their facts straight and keep them from retaining incorrect "knowledge" they'll have to "unlearn." But don't the arguments serve some healthy purpose in their development? My inner amateur psychologist tells me so, though I can't qualify why, exactly. Maybe it's their need to learn about conflict resolution. (See Stacey's post last week on sibling rivalry.)

Or maybe I've been overcorrecting my kids. (Perhaps that's the root cause of their need to correct each other?) They're learning through exploration and interaction. I can parent their exchanges when they get out of hand and insist that they be appropriately civil inasmuch as that's possible, but perhaps I should let them go when I can. Can't they be "right" even when they're wrong sometimes?

Okay, you can probably see that Dad likes to be right, too, and these little acorns fell close to the tree. What I'm describing is an exercise in self-restraint, most importantly because I don't want to stifle my son's newfound expressiveness or have either of my kids grow weary of a hovering, didactic parent pointing out errors. Overcorrecting, at their tender ages, might be disempowering. I want them to feel free to express new thoughts and ideas without fear of criticism.

So just where do you draw the line between gently correcting and overcorrecting?

By Mike Snyder |  January 8, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development
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Ah yes, the older sister correcting and always believing she is "right." You could be describing my house! I can't say I know where to draw the line either but I have pointed out to my daughter that her brother needs to have the time and space to figure things out for himself and make mistakes. I explain that she made similar mistakes but didn't have an older sibling correcting her every second. In terms of intervening in disputes, I get involved when it gets physical, which with my kids is often, and mostly my involvement is to say, "Stop hitting," and "If you can't work it out play separately." I try not to mediate at all because, as you say, usually they've both done something wrong and figuring out who was more wrong isn't going to get us anywhere. I will make suggestions if they really want to play together but can't seem to work it out - e.g. yesterday they wanted to be together but didn't want to play the same thing so I suggested putting on a CD and dancing, which I know they both like.

Here's my big question for the group, handling playdates. When my daughter has a friend over she wants to play with her friend alone without little bro tagging along. I understand and appreciate that and tell my son that he can have special playtime with Mommy. But sometimes he doesn't want that and really wants to play with the girls or I really have to get dinner started and can't play with him. Then the girls get upset because they don't want him. Thoughts? Suggestions? It's particularly a problem when she has a friend sleep over (she's in 3rd grade and that's really big now).

Posted by: Pt Fed Mof2 | January 8, 2008 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Dad - it's not about you being right either! It's about teaching them how to find the answers or to analyze the situation. Ask questions that require them to apply logic and think things through. Help them figure out where they can get an answer without you telling them. Teach them to explore and learn. It takes a bit longer, but that's our real role!

Posted by: parenting | January 8, 2008 8:57 AM | Report abuse

You are missing a huge opportunity to help both the kids -- by butting out. Let them work it out together. If they can't, then separate them and plunk their bottoms into chairs where they can't have a lot of fun. (In our house, it was sitting on the living room sofa and one of the living room's chairs). When they are ready to play with each other, then they can get up. If they can't play nicely with each other, then they don't get to play at all.

Posted by: Barbara | January 8, 2008 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Go buy "Siblings without rivalry!"

Posted by: shandra_lemarath | January 8, 2008 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I try not to get drawn into these fights which often are more about power than facts. I might say something generic like "it's okay for people to disagree" or "your sibling is entitled to his/her own opinion" or "this isn't worth arguing over." If it gets obnoxious, I send them to their rooms. Without a sympathetic ear, these appeals for parental support for who's *right* soon die.

Posted by: anne.saunders | January 8, 2008 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Stay out of it. Really. Unless there is physical pain involved, they can work it out. And if one comes to you with a complaint about the other one, say, "Don't tell me about your sister/brother, tell me about you." Or "I can't hear whining children." Repeat as needed. My girls do still argue, and sometimes it is a doozy, but if I stay out of it, eventually they work it out or get tired of arguing. But they are not allowed to hurt each other. I don't intervene when one screams at the top of her lungs for the other to stop pushing her or whatever. But if real crying begins, watch out. Fortunately, mine are girls, and they aren't as physical as many boys.

But my correction goes both ways. "It was not okay for your sister to hit you, but what did you think she was going to do when you kept pushing her after she asked you to stop?" We talk a lot about respect for the other. Preschoolers and early primary kids are old enough to think about how their actions affect others. They need some support (esp preschoolers), but can learn to see another's perspective.

Children learn to resolve conflicts by getting practice at it, not by watching you solve their conflicts. It can be hard for me to stay out of things sometimes, because I see my older daughter doing the same things that my older sister did to me. But I survived okay, and my younger daughter will, too.

Posted by: stay out of it | January 8, 2008 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I'm not glad my kids are back to school, and it wears on MY last nerve when parents cheer and hurrah when school starts. I don't say that about my husband every Monday - "thank God he's going back to work, because he really drives me crazy over the weekends!" - why should I say it about my kids?

Maybe you need to look at this from the opposite pov, Mike. Maybe your kids are picking up on your attitude subconsciously and it causes them to bicker. People, including kids, like to be wanted. They don't want to be made to felt like you're just counting the minutes until they'll go away. Maybe not worry so much about correcting them and worry more about how you act towards them.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Pt Fed Mof2:

Coming from a family of 5 children, I can understand your dilemma! I can definitely see both sides.

Your daughter deserves to play with her friends uninterrupted by her brother. Perhaps you can have some kind of special activities for your son to do that can only be done when the sister has friends over. If he has "fun" things to do when people come over, he won't feel like his sister is the only one that gets to have fun. Get a box and put a bunch of craft stuff in it, such as stickers, pipe cleaners, fun scissors, etc. You can find stuff like this at a craft store relatively cheap. Have fun play-doh "tools" he can play with. Rent a movie for him. Perhaps you could talk to your daughter and explain that you understand that she wants to play with her friend solo, but it would be nice for her to occasionally include him. Hope this helps!

Posted by: to Pt Fed Mof2 | January 8, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Wish I had magic bullet. My preferred approach is to set some basic ground rules ((1) no hitting; (2) no nasty words/tone), and otherwise let them work it out. But right now, the boy is still young enough that he doesn't have words, so he hits instead. Typical exchange when they're both in that pissy mood: he takes her toy, she complains that its hers (either bossy or whining, depending on her mood), he won't give it back, she tries to take it back, he hits her, she starts wailing and comes running to me. So I find myself in the middle far more often than I'd like, at least until they're old enough to (mostly) stay within those basic rules.

This weekend was extra good, though -- he took a swing, she managed to avoid it, but then fell back like he got her and started wailing that he hit her. It was a really impressive performance; I just happened to be at the perfect angle to see that he actually missed. I told them they were both getting two minutes in the penalty box -- him for roughing, her for unsportsmanlike conduct for taking a dive.

Posted by: laura | January 8, 2008 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I agree that having a special activity that's only available when the other sibling has company is a good way of encouraging the younger to back off.

My SD is amazingly good around adults. She's quiet, reasonable, and thoughtful. All of that goes out the window when she's around someone her own age. On Christmas, she and her cousin were taking me for a walk, and I got to witness my SD being loud, bossy, and downright insulting because her cousin accidentally ended up walking in front of her on the curb. Luckily, her cousin is the most mellow little boy in the world, so there were no meltdowns, but it was a bit of a shock to see how she could act around her contemporaries, and now Im worried about giving her the baby she's decided we need. I'm beginning to think she wants a minion more than anything else.

Posted by: Kat | January 8, 2008 11:16 AM | Report abuse

My lovely wife can often be heard saying, "Unless there's blood or a broken bone, I don't want to hear about it."

Posted by: Arlington Dad | January 8, 2008 11:35 AM | Report abuse

This past winter vacation was particularly bad for my 5 year old. He essentially entertained himself by irritating his older brother and sisters. The funny thing is that he will keep bothering his siblings until they finally decide to clobber him. When he gets chased, I can hear him squeal with laughter. Then comes the pounding. Then he cries.

I see some parents with their own kids take action against the older sibling for similar situations, but this is what I call "punishing the winner".

I like to take the approach of "consoling the "loser" when it comes to sibling squabbles, but only when the disadvantaged kid comes to me for protection. Like last week, I was coddling the little one while everybody else in my family, including my wife, was complaining what a brat he had been lately. I just held him in my lap, rubbed his back, and pretended to feel sorry for him. Then, after he was done sniveling, he got up and threw a water bottle at his brother's leggo creation. BASH! It was a perfect shot from clear across the room I must say.

The little one took off laughing hysterically, got chased down by his brother, and once again, the clobbering commenced.

Eventially they get worn down and tired, but sheesh, it takes a long time. Boys!

Posted by: DandyLion | January 8, 2008 12:23 PM | Report abuse

shoot - i'm 30 and my two older brothers and my younger sister still insist they are always right....

Posted by: tbd | January 8, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Go get a copy of "Bill Cosby, Himself." Watch it. Learn from it.

When the kids are old enough, make them watch it, too.

My teens think that it's spot-on, and hilarious, besides.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | January 8, 2008 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Less is more. Unless there's a bone sticking out, or blood oozing from ears, or a noise ordinance violation, stay out of it. Separate them if it's driving you crazy, but don't get sucked into it.

You could throw them outside and lock the doors too. It may not "work", but at least it gives you a chance to recover from the rining in your ears.

Posted by: maryland_mother | January 8, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

"Heads and Hands" works in our house. Face each other, holding hands, foreheads together. They can't break up til the fight is over and I don't want to hear the specifics or who started it. Within a minute they are giggling, the fight is over and I didn't need to take sides. I sometimes they are looking for a why to stop the conflict without losing face.

Posted by: HappyMom | January 8, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I should tell people that you need to get your kids in check here before they go out into the real world. My freshman roommate in college would argue incessantly about some factual matter and be a real jerk when people questioned him. This was a problem because he wasn't educated and was frequently wrong. I remember one time, getting so sick of his argument that kept popping up every few minutes all night that I got up, put on a coat, walked 10 minutes to the library, photocopied an article proving him wrong, and walked back, taping it to our front door. His next tack was to suggest that I made a big deal out of nothing. People really grew to hate him, but he also made me look bad because he'd push me until I lashed back with evidence.

I'm a know it all, sure, but it's critically important to learn when to shut up.

Posted by: DCer | January 8, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

My brother and sis-in-law constantly correct my nephew...he's now 8 and has started to do this himself - to his little friends and even occasionally to adults. Unfortunately his parents don't see anything wrong with this (heaven forbid if anyone besides his parents tell him he's wrong!) and he's going to grow up into DCer's freshman roommate - a bratty know-it-all who can't keep his opinions to himself.

Posted by: dcgirl1899 | January 8, 2008 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I have been telling DD I am right because I took a Mommy test. If you don't well you can't become a Mommy. It is now a family joke.

Sometimes to be a parent you can not be popular. I tell DD that if we get the work done the play will be easier and it usually is.

Posted by: shdd | January 8, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I concur with the others that you really should just stay out of it completely- unless you're helping/reviewing homework or you're out in public and need to correct a behavior quickly, it's not a big deal and nothing you can't go back in 5 years privately and clear up.

You interfering says it's ok to get into those silly arguments in the first place and that it's ok to prove rightness to another.

Pt, get him his own friends will be the quickest thing, but otherwise you'll need to distract him with something he does enjoy and teach him the hard lesson of respecting other peoples time- just like he does to you and dad.

Posted by: Liz D | January 8, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

My two oldest children (both girls) often get into fights or disagreements (ages 5 and 3). I stay out of it unless I specifically see behavior that's not allowed in our house (i.e., hitting, biting or pushing; or using unacceptable language). I'm the mom who says, "If I didn't see it, it didn't happen," to tattletails, or "If there's no blood, don't come to me." I find that making them work it out keeps me from being a constant referee and also not listening to tattletails helps keep a lid on the tendency children have to police each other.

Posted by: SH | January 8, 2008 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm in the stay-out-of-it camp too. In our house the competition is for electronic toys, and our solution when someone complains about not getting his turn, "Well, did you set the timer?"

The boys are responsible for setting the kitchen stove timer, 30-minutes for a turn. It was shorter turns when they were younger, but at 15 and 10 half-hour turns seem pretty reasonable. If someone forgot to reset the timer when his brother started his turn, it's his own problem - although DH will give in to the younger one, "Yeah, older son has been on a long time, so why don't you set it for 10 minutes."

Questions to parents, seeking infomation because they're curious will get straight answers, including, "I don't know," if we don't, and then doing some on-line research to find out.

I can't remember ever having the who's right situation come up. Probably one of those age-difference benefits, or possibly due to older son's autism. So, I don't have any specific thoughts about handling it, just the general sense that staying out of it is preferable.

Posted by: Sue | January 8, 2008 3:50 PM | Report abuse

...and now Im worried about giving her the baby she's decided we need. I'm beginning to think she wants a minion more than anything else.

Posted by: Kat | January 8, 2008 11:16 AM

I'm really surprised no one caught this.

Please don't have another child until this one learns to deal with her issues (I'm guessing divorce?). Wow. I really hope you were joking.

Posted by: WDC 21113 | January 8, 2008 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Good catch WDC

Kat- ask yourself more where the bossy behavior comes from and if it's an expression of something else going on inside? Kids most often model the behavior they see from the adults around them when relating to other kids, specially new ones.

Posted by: Liz D | January 8, 2008 5:23 PM | Report abuse


How many children do you have? Yes, children do model they see, but there is so much more to it than that. There is child personality, for example. Some children are bossier than others. Yes, we need to help these children learn to be less bossy, but just because a parent comments on a blog that her child was bossy with her young cousin on one occasion ("it was a bit of a shock . . .").

People who know me as the mom of my older daughter think that I am a good mom, as she is very well-behaved. People who know me only as the mom of my younger daughter sometimes make the mistake of thinking that her behavior is due to my poor parenting skills, rather than to her personality and her ADHD. I can't figure out how my parenting skills suddenly disappeared with the advent of my second child, and I think that there is a better than 50% chance that they didn't disappear.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 6:15 PM | Report abuse

"Please don't have another child until this one learns to deal with her issues (I'm guessing divorce?). Wow."

Seriously? The "minion" comment absolutely cracked me up, since I have one of those, too. It's been a bit of a shock to her to discover that baby bro has a mind of his own and was not put here on this earth just to do her bidding.

Of course, I'm the opposite of the 6:15 comment: apparently I suddenly became WonderParent with the birth of number 2! :-) Made me laugh when I took a plane trip with him at about a year old, and at the end the gentleman next to me profusely complimented me on what a good mother I was, because the boy was SO well-behaved. As if I actually had anything to do with it. Must have been that request I submitted (in triplicate, of course) for a mellow kid this time, right? LOL

Posted by: Laura | January 8, 2008 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Stay out of it. What everyone said.

Yes, my oldest DS has started tattling and we tell him to stop - and he says: i'm not tattling. He doesn't apparently know the meaning of the word because then we tell him that yes, he's tattling.

But the youngest is getting bigger and they are getting better able to play together, which is great. The younger one will hit the older one and then they both start to cry - the older one rarely if ever will hit the younger one.

But we saw something great the other day (at least DH did). They were all at the park, older one on his bike, younger in the sandbox. Younger one got hit - and while older DS was running to sandbox to help younger DS out, younger DS was apparently hitting back (all eventually got worked out). But it was good to see the older one feels responsible for his brother and that they can get into all sorts of disagreements together, but when the chips are down, the older one is right there for his bro. We'll see what happens as they get older, but it was nice to hear.

Otherwise, yeah, i try to stay out of stuff. older DS is learning the younger one's difficulties and what he can and can't do - but they do love each other so much and love to play with each other.

But stay out of it (did I say that already?)!

Oh, and stop arguing with the kids. That's where they learn it from. I just stop myself (oh, can I argue) and say: okay, you're right. I know this flaw in my personality and have worked on it for a while - and I'm not arguing with anyone about what they think is correct - if they don't want to listen to people and have made up their mind, then there's no sense arguing - same goes for a little kid.

Posted by: atlmom | January 8, 2008 7:15 PM | Report abuse

Laura understands. The other two were awfully quick to jump on the tube-tying wagon.

Posted by: Kat | January 8, 2008 11:58 PM | Report abuse

For the holier than thou anonymous commenter who loves her husband and kids more than the rest of us --- you are correct. I am very happy everyone is back into their routine come monday, including, or maybe especially my husband! As I have read, short term changes are hard to make, and the holidays are stressful. Out of town family, out of town trips, last minute shopping ( didn't expect that flu bug -- thank goodness I did most of my shopping in November) are not mood lifters all the time. This year was the first time in ten years that my mother had all of her kids and grandkids home for the holidays. We were only there two days, but she said that after we all left both she and my dad went and took four hour long naps!

I love my family -- I just don't want them around me 24/7. And vice versa.

One more thing -- we have been without a tv for a week. It has been BLISS! My kids have hardly fought at all, but played together for hours. On Sunday they played for 5 hours together without fighting. I could hear some whining when there was a disagreement, but that was it.

Posted by: notworkingtoday | January 9, 2008 8:31 AM | Report abuse

My wife and I have decided to move away from America in another 3 years, by that time my son will be 10, girl a will be 7 and girl b 3.

We dont want the sleazy American culture overpowering our kids, specially the girls with Britney and paris Hilton as role models.

We will either go to the UK or the middle East where we are of the middle east and asia will be the powerhouses of tomorrow.

We want to raise our kids with decent morals, and a balanced moderate lifestyle.

Posted by: mildbrew | January 9, 2008 3:03 PM | Report abuse

"For the holier than thou anonymous commenter who loves her husband and kids more than the rest of us"

Ummm yeah, I do love my husband and kids more than I love you. A LOT more.

Methinks you're a bit sensitive, since you got so defensive by what I said. Notice nobody else did; obviously they're all fine and secure with being glad that break is over. I personally cannot imagine cheering that my family is getting out of my face, and I think that my attitude about it does affect how my children act. If my husband acted like it was a big chore to be around me, I wouldn't be very inclined to be pleasant, thus I could hardly blame my kids for fighting with each other if I went around sighing and saying "geez, isn't it time to go back to school yet?? You guys are driving me nuts!"

Posted by: Anonymous | January 9, 2008 7:46 PM | Report abuse


You are considering leaving the US and going to the Middle East to live? How does one get to choose the country he immigrates to? Furthermore, won't your daughters have fewer opporunities in the next country than they have in the US? Or do some countries there have more liberal societies than I thought?

Posted by: Michaels | January 11, 2008 4:31 PM | Report abuse

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