Natural for Children to Fight? – “Ask John” #1

Dear John,

I am a mother of three children, ages 3, 5, and 8.

I would like to know if it is natural for children to fight or if this is a product of the world we live in.

Many thanks,

Dr. C


John’s response:

Dear Dr. C,

You really ask TWO questions, one easy, one so hard.

It would take a BOOK to deal with. The easy one first, rephrased, is: “Do CHILDREN FIGHT more because of some circumstances of modern life?

My reply is a tentative, YES. In my experience, once medical/psychological factors are ruled out–– which I presume you have done, the principle reason for quarrels among siblings is some belief in the quarrelsome that an injustice has occurred. Kids in general are especially sensitive to what they deem “unfair” in the disposition of toys, food, attention, favorite clothing, control of television remotes, and a thousand other things which may strike an adult perception as reasonable, but which can appear maddeningly intolerable to somebody 3, 5, or 8.

In our hyper-commercial culture, STUFF is promoted heavily as utterly essential to happiness, and even if your children are not media-addicted, conversations with neighbors, guests, and relatives often revolve around the ownership of desirable stuff, possession of some latest craze for music, clothing, toys, games, etc. So, in families in which material values are strong, I would say YES, fights and arguments will occur as byproducts of the competition to POSSESS, but in families where daily life circulates around the splendors of nature and physical life outdoors and other idealistic pursuits motivations to quarrel take on different characteristics, usually milder.


Indeed, to track this phenomenon to its genesis you need to make your three kids active partners in establishing family rules of fairness that ALL AGREE TO, AND THAT YOU ENFORCE consistently: In this family we do not call each other names or make each other feel bad, we do not hit, steal, slam doors, sulk. In living with the family rules, your own behavior is closely watched; if you become angry and strike them in your anger or insult their dignities, you are issuing a license to do as you so, because the strongest family educational tool is emulation––IF YOU ARE CALM AND RATIONAL IN THE FACE OF PROVOCATION, THEY WILL LEARN that no need exists to become hysterical when unfairness occurs.

Do ask your kids to tell you what their grievances are––I guarantee they will have some––and brainstorm collectively how to correct them. Be imaginative and resourceful. If, for instance, the five year old complains that the eight year old gets a larger slice of pie and cake, propose that the eight year old gets to cut the dessert and the five year old gets first choice of slice to take; arguments about custody of the TV remote controller could result in a public display board that assigns specific times to each child, for example.

Try to stay away from abstract justifications for differential treatment––like the eight year old, say, is allowed a later bedtime because the wee ones need more sleep––even if true it won’t seem that way because physiology is not a strong suit to play with young zealots.

From time to time, to prevent physical harm or to preserve your own sanity, you may have to forcefully separate combatants, but limit these occasions to prevent the kids from leaning EXCLUSIVELY on you to solve problems.

In thinking on your question, you forgot to provide personality details about each child, their personal strengths and weaknesses––you need to pitch your possible solutions to what you know about each specific person––what constitutes an incentive, reward or punishment will vary widely among the ages.

I would imagine that the language component is strongest in the oldest child; if so, then he/she will be more susceptible to a heartfelt private talk; similarly, if one loves the outdoors, nature, and animals, incentives might be structured around trips to a petting zoo, or walks in the country with mom. Playing Solomon––an integral part of bringing harmony into a three sibling family––should be approached not as a trial, but as an art form, the opportunity to co-create a human character––few challenges in a lifetime are more important to your flesh and blood, your community, and the nation. I grant it takes unceasing effort and attention, but where else in an ordinary existence will you be trusted with such an exquisite task?

Good luck to you, Doc, and congratulations on having three; when you get to be 80, as I soon will be, they will be more precious to you than any other investment. The exasperation you feel now is no different, I’m sure, than what Ben Franklin’s mom felt, or Tom Edison’s, but the later lives of those once three, five, and eight year olds have made my own life much richer, have illuminated my streets at night, and given me more music than any king and queen in history had access to because some mom, like you, took pains to establish a climate of fairness in the home so that Franklin and Edison could associate with their siblings as friends and allies, rather than opponents.

The effort harmony takes is, admittedly, considerable, but so was med school, right, Doc? As you see affection grow among your warring three, you will feel the same warm exhilaration Cellini felt as he finished one of his immortal cups, that Caesar felt as he wrote the last lines of Gallic Wars, that Eiffel felt as his tower rose above Paris. Forgive me for waxing romantic, but the older I get the more I come to see motherhood as THE SUPREME ART OF HUMANKIND, an art denied my gender by the Great Architect.


– John Taylor Gatto                                                                                          State Teacher of the Year (New York, 1991)

April 15, 2015

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