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Help! My Kids Are Fighting So Much That I Dread Coming Home.

"It makes coming home awful. It makes being at home awful. It has split the family apart, honestly"

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Goodfather,

My kids (3, and 6) fight. And fight. And fight. And fight. I act as the moderator to settle skirmishes over stolen stuffies and crayons and there’s just a lot of stealing going on. I say it’s wrong to steal. But they don’t listen. They just give in to their time-out or whatever and plot their next battle.

It makes coming home awful. It makes being at home awful. It has split the family apart, honestly. My wife takes one kid and I do the other and we go our ways for most of the weekend. We come home for dinner and… twenty minutes in (they play and are happy to see each other), the fighting begins. My wife and I are at our wit’s end. What do we do? — anonymous, via email

Truth be told, your natural instincts aren’t terribly wrong. What you see as being “torn apart” I see as spending quality one-on-one time. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think more parents with multiple kids should be encouraged to get out of the house for some individual adventures with their kids. So, the trick will be convincing yourself that splitting up your time is a-okay and then developing some strategies to keep the kids copacetic when they are together at home. 

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First, let’s bust the myth that the best family time is spent together in close proximity. That’s simply not the case. The best family time is when family members are enjoying one another’s company and sharing joy — or simply contentment if joy is out of reach — wherever they may be. I mean, really, what’s the point of forcing people together if that experience is going to be painful, angst-inducing and full of tears and reproach. That ain’t good, my man. 

So by believing that your family is mostly a family when you are all under the same roof, it sounds like you’re putting proximity above quality. For your sake, as well as everyone else in your home, I would suggest you lean into those activities that spread contentment. If that’s splitting up for outings, then fine. That’s what it should be for now.

Consider this, too: You and your partner bring different things to the table. Part of that is simply because you’re different sexes. The way you interact with your children will be inherently different than the way your wife interacts with them. When the two of you are together, these differences will be naturally muted. When you’re one on one with your children, however, they get the full force of your individual personalities, skills, perspectives. All I’d suggest is that you make sure to give your kids equal time with each parent. 

That said, you can’t practically spend all of your time swapping out children and then running around apart. As you pointed out, there are times when you have to come together, just to go about the business of living. Your mention of dinner is a perfect example and I was pleased to read that you try to gather and eat. Dinner is an important time for families and can actually be hugely beneficial, specifically because it brings everyone together for a common purpose and gives you the opportunity to communicate. One of the great ways to boost that communication and keep the consternation at bay is to keep the kids on the opposite side of the table and out of hitting (or stealing) distance. This should be made easier by the fact that your three-year-old is probably still using some kind of booster chair or high chair.  

Once everyone is appropriately separated, it might help to think less about food and more about coming together. To accomplish this, my family plays a game of roses and thorns — essentially talking about the good and parts of our day in turn. But we also sometimes play a truncated version of twenty questions called Guess the Animal or try to tell a story together by taking turns building the plot. 

The point of these activities is that they are cooperative and not competitive. There is a shared goal. In fact, steering your children towards activities that are cooperative will be hugely helpful. It’s hard to steal when everyone has equal claim to the property and it’s all being applied to the same goal. Building a puzzle is a great example of a communal activity with a shared goal. So is working together to build a castle or tower out of blocks or sand. 

There will, of course, be times when conflicts will arise. In those cases, you should act as a mediator rather than a judge or referee. Because referees and judges help determine who is right in a situation. There will inevitably be a winner and a loser, and that will not be helpful to your situation. However, a mediator helps two parties negotiate to find a solution that is closest to a win-win as possible. 

So, instead of handing out time-outs, you’d be better served by trying to suss out the core of the conflict and helping your kids find a way to come to a mutually beneficial resolution. Yes, this will be difficult. Yes, it will take time. But it will eventually help. 

Finally, it’s important to note that much of this may mellow as your kids’ age. But as they grow and learn skills like sharing and regulating emotions, you’ll have to keep your eye on them. This kind of conflict, if left unchecked can lead to some serious bullying. You’ve got to have a zero-tolerance policy on violence and stress values of finding solutions over who is right and wrong. 

This will pass. Believe me. But until it does, enjoy that one-on-one time and work of giving your kids tasks with common goals.