A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling with how to deal with the big sisters' bickering. I'm never really sure, or interested in, how a conflict starts. When I do pay attention I find both sisters are guilty of something. Katherine often bombards Clara with a series of statements like, "My tower is the better one, right? It's better than yours because it is taller and more beautiful. Your tower isn't as good," and Clara has been known to knock Katherine (or her tower) down for no apparent reason (perhaps a preemptive or delayed response to the slew of 6-year-old boastful insults?) Either way, both sisters dissolve into tears and outrage. I stay out of it if I can, and respond to the tattles with vague phrases like, "Hmmm, I see," or, "That doesn't sound good." But if it gets to that point where they can't repair their play I'll step in. The problem is that my stepping in isn't working: sending one kid out of the room just makes that kid angrier, taking away the object of conflict makes both kids angrier, trying to sort out who is feeling what and why is more than they can handle in the moment, distracting them with a new activity might work, but the conflict seems to follow them into the new activity.
My friend offered a new idea. She suggested having the one who is struggling (usually Clara) stay next to me in whatever I am doing for a period of time. The idea is that it is not a punishment, like sending her to sit on the stairs; instead it separates her from the conflict without isolating her.
Because Clara is very into puppy dog play, I call my puppy dog over to me and tell her I am tying her (pretend) leash to my waist. She has to stay close to me and follow me around wherever I go, until I untie her. She loves it – probably because this is similar to what my mom does to her dog when, on those very rare occasions, he misbehaves. Clara is delighted with the idea of being treated like Grandma’s dog and stays right at my feet, absorbed in her new role as family dog. The fight is forgotten and we can all move on.
I know the puppy dog part will lose its novelty, but having one child stay close to me is a great solution. This neutral consequence is accepted by both - meaning Katherine doesn't feel Clara gets special treatment for misbehaving, and Clara doesn't feel the injustice of being punished for a fight that Katherine was a part of.
Thank you, Elaine. This idea is working wonderfully and our late afternoons are much more enjoyable!
And just the other day, Katherine came to me and told me she felt she needed to be my puppy for a little while, and would I please tie her leash to my waist. Then when she was ready to go back to her play, she asked me to untie her.