Stop the presses! A little over a month ago, I reported that The Onion, an online and print publication, had run a story on research purporting to find that 98 percent of kids under age 10 are "unrepentant sociopaths who ... will do anything to get their own way."
Even though I ultimately revealed that the research was "ersatz," or fake (The Onion is nothing but satire), and invited readers to "find more laughs" on my Web site, a number of folks didn't get the joke. This inadvertent survey forces me to conclude that for far too many people, parenting is no laughing matter.
Q: My 7- and 4-year-old daughters play together all day long, but the play is punctuated every few minutes with bickering of the "I'm telling!" and "I'm not going to be your friend anymore!" sort.
The older one is very manipulative, while the younger one is very emotional and will occasionally lash out physically at her older sister. Should I deal with the bickering and the disrespect (e.g. "I hate you!") as two separate issues? (The fighting bothers me, but not so much as the idea that might grow up thinking they can speak disrespectfully to people.) In any case, how do you think I should handle this problem?
A: Before tendering a solution, one that's worked for lots of parents in similar predicaments, I want to address your fear that your daughters' disrespect toward one another is a precursor of general disrespect for others. This is a prime example of what I call "apocalyptic thinking," a peculiar thought-quake that strikes mothers much more often and with more force than fathers.
Let me assure you that siblings can grow up loathing the ground one another walks on without harboring the same feeling for others. Another way of putting this is to say that one's behavior as an adult is not necessarily caused by or even always related to childhood experiences.
This is Freud-babble, and Freud never managed to prove the validity of any of his theories, nor has anyone since. Animals are trapped in their individual histories; humans are not.
And no, you should not deal with the bickering and their disrespect as two separate issues. How complicated would that quickly become? They both bother you, so treat them both as simply disturbances of your valuable peace.
And now, my brilliant solution: Give the girls two "free" disturbances a day. At the first one of the day, you simply call out, "That's one!" At the second, call out, "That's two!" At the third, separate and isolate them in their respective rooms or two separate areas of the house for the rest of the day.
Yes, even if the third offense takes place at 10 in the morning. You might also consider relieving their boredom on these occasions by putting them both to bed an hour or two early.
If my experience serves me reasonably well, their bickering will all but stop within two weeks, at which point you should not relax your guard lest the problem be back in full force in another two weeks. Remember, relapses are always more stubborn than their original conditions.