You know the scene, when your kids are little: whenever you go round to your friend’s for a nice coffee and chat the kids fight, one gets hurt and it happens again and again. Gradually resentments build up on both sides and you and your friend end up falling out or at least ‘having a break for a while.’
Let’s say it’s a typical scenario where one child hits and the other one cries – one child is the ‘aggressor’ and the other is the ‘victim.’ I don’t like to use these labels but you know what I’m talking about so let’s just carry on with them and I’ll drop the inverted commas. OK, so let’s go further and say that the aggressor is a boy, and the victim is a girl, because that’s really upped the ante and got you nicely worked up with gender-based outrage. (Just try to control that a bit so you can take on what I’m saying).
At this point I’ll drop the word ‘parent’ and substitute the word ‘mum’ in the interests of accuracy.
Sometimes you, as the mum of the aggressor, will be seen as not doing enough to stop it; sometimes that’s true and it’s really annoying. Other times it happens because you are paralysed with shame, humiliation and lack of confidence in being able to deal with it. And sometimes you try to work it out/shout/ threaten punishment and do a load of other things to try and stop the behaviour but it keeps on happening, in fact it seems to be getting worse as your list of creative punishments grows.
Meanwhile, you may feel that your friend is over-harsh on your little boy, jumping in with anger in a way that you feel makes it worse; you feel she has no right to treat your child like that, no matter what he’s done. And other times you might feel that your friend is far too over-protective of her child and should just lighten up a bit because honestly it’s not that bad and her child needs to toughen up and take a bit of rough and tumble. She just cries too easily and gets your little boy into trouble.
And you, mum of the victim, may be feeling outraged and genuinely concerned about your child’s safety, and you might begin to make all sorts of judgments about your friend’s parenting skills and responsibilities, and feel compelled to jump in and rescue your child. You may see red if your friend even hints at a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude. You may start to feel that your friend really doesn’t care about the safety of your child. Plus you’ll be feeling upset to see your child upset of course.
All of this is completely normal.
Both of you will feel compelled to defend the interests of your own child, while at the same time both of you may be secretly feeling very anxious about their behaviour: ‘Is he a bully?’ or ‘Does she cry too easily?’
Whatever the combination of reaction and feeling happens to be, we are in danger of reinforcing a bully-victim dynamic when our kids fight, with all the interest and attention on this particular aspect of their behaviour. The more we allow the kids’ behaviour to come between us and our relationship, the more power we give to that dynamic.
Children are compelled to repeat a behaviour which seems to have such a huge impact on the world and the adults in that world. It is so interesting to a child to see how much impact they can have on the world. Power!
So we need to reframe our response to it, from focusing on the children to focusing on our relationship. Are we really prepared to give two little children the power to destroy our fantastic and valuable friendship?
No we’re not, so let’s think about what we want when we get together. We want to have a nice time don’t we? We want to relax, chat and catch up. And that’s how we need to confront the kids.
‘You two, sort this out, because we want to have a nice time and sit and relax and chat and catch up.’ We need to be together on this, and we need to have equal conviction in our right to have this time together. We need to look after our own needs.
I know what you’re thinking, mum of the victim, you’re thinking ‘but that’s not fair, my child’s not to blame, she shouldn’t be told off.’ But remember, you don’t want to be reinforcing her sense of herself as a victim, so when you address both children you are taking the focus off not only one child’s aggression, but also your child’s victim status. And I’m not suggesting you do it in a telling-off kind of way, but in a fairly brisk, matter-of-fact assumption-of-complete-understanding kind of way. If your daughter says (not unreasonably) ‘but he hit me! Why are you telling me? Why aren’t you telling him off?’ you can just say seriously ‘I don’t think I need to, I think he gets it and he won’t do it again.’
See that massive message of trust you are sending to that little boy? It’s likely to be far more effective than your tight-lipped disapproval and barely-suppressed hatred. And you are expressing confidence in your little girl’s ability to stand up for herself, rather than learn that if she cries someone will jump in and rescue her. Although that may sound harsh, just remember that these altercations between your children are happening in a safe space – you are there – and they are learning so much which they can take into situations when you are not there (like at school), so you really want her to learn to manage it by herself. See it as training for the playground.
Both mums need to reinforce the same expectation with their children separately before meeting up. For the mum of the victim: ‘Remember, we want to have a nice time together today so we don’t want to be interrupted by crying children. I think you two can sort things out together.’ Say this once and only once, with an absolute assumption that she will be OK. It’s also important to simply acknowledge her if she complains about his behaviour: ‘Yeah, he does that sometimes doesn’t he? That’s hard for you’ and let her know that the adults are not just ignoring it: ‘His Mum’s told him he’s got to stop doing that because it’s not OK and it’s important that you’re safe. And of course I’m there to help you if you need me.’ You need to take her feelings seriously but at the same express absolute confidence in her.
Mum of the aggressor, you have to make it really clear: ‘Right, we’re going and the deal is no hitting, you got that? BECAUSE I WANT TO HAVE A NICE TIME WITH MY FRIEND TOO. I trust you to remember that this time.’ You might want to say that in capitals with a fierce look. And then leave it, no more discussion on that subject, it’s done. You need to speak in a no-nonsense way, with absolute assumption of his understanding. It’s non-negotiable.
And then keep it up. When they forget (as they will, they’re children) a message of trust – ‘We expect you to remember next time’; ‘We trust you two will get this right next time and work it out together without our help’ – is going to be far more effective then threats or pleading because it makes kids feel grown-up rather than infantalised. Inevitably your messages will be more heavily weighted towards the aggressor, and you need to agree a language that you both feel comfortable with. I suggest that rather than using subjective labeling words like ‘mean’ or ‘spiteful’ you make strong statements such as ‘Hitting is not OK and it’s never OK’ or ‘We don’t allow hitting in our house’ or ‘The rule in our house is no hitting. Please remember. Thank you.’
Think of it as two behaviours which are not helpful in life – ‘hitting’ and ‘crying easily’ – and how we’d like to help both children grow beyond those behaviours. Over-punishing the aggressor and over-protecting the victim doesn’t do that.
It’s a tricky situation to navigate between friends, but an understanding of how hard it is for both of us, together with a jointly agreed plan of action gives us the best chance of managing it in the most positive way for both the children and ourselves.
Just remember that when our kids fight, that’s their relationship, not ours; their friendship is being tested and it doesn’t mean that our friendship needs to end up being a metaphorical hitting and crying relationship too.