Look carefully at this comic. With whom do you most identify?
A. The exasperated mother, of course! Why do kids fight over toys that are exactly the same?
B. The little girl. I hate it when someone constantly watches me or my stuff!
C. The little boy. I’m always keeping my eyes open for my opportunity to take what I want!
D. A bit with all of them.
I’m guessing that, since most of our readers are adults, and those who aren’t parents may have at least had experience babysitting, many of you will identify with the exasperated mother. I know I often do!
And when in the position of the exasperated parent (or caregiver), trying to catch a moment of relaxation (or, worse, in the middle of something very important), kids fighting, especially over something that seems completely irrational, is so incredibly frustrating. We may, like this mother, recite little platitudes trying to pacify one or more of our children. Or we may try to suggest some alternate form of play (or chore) to “redirect.” Or we may “lose it” and shout out something like “Quiet!” or “Why can’t you two [three, four, etc.] get along!” I have done all of these things, and I don’t judge anyone (including myself) for these methods of handling sibling rivalry. But none of these methods really address the issue at hand.
Perhaps some of you identified with one or the other child. Taking a moment to empathize with children is perhaps the most important step in being able to understand and resolve their conflicts (but the path is not always straight and clear!)
I know that when I first saw this comic, while I could understand the mother’s exhausted bewilderment, I was most struck by the poor little girl’s sad face at the end. It made me yearn to understand her. And when it occurred to me that I already understood the mother, and wanted to understand the girl, then I realized I also wanted to understand the little boy. He seems the only one happy at the end of the strip, but ironically, he’s also the only one without a voice at all. And as the mother of a toddler, I often feel like toddlers are the most bewildering people on the planet. I would love to understand them better!
So as I examined this comic more closely, I tried to understand it from each character’s point of view. From a Girardian perspective, the reason for the conflict is natural… and less “childish” than we might like to imagine!
Change Your View:
First, imagine you are the little boy. New to the world, you are learning what you want and what to do by watching others. You watch your big sister, see the things she likes to play with, and those things become desirable to you. More than just toys, your sister also has the pride, love, and (sometimes) attention of your parents. You have those things too, but when you see your sister receive them, you want them even more. This is natural. It is how human beings learn desire. You’re not consciously processing any of this; you just see what others close to you have, and you want those things. As you grow, you will learn to discern and discriminate, but the basics of receiving desire from those around you won’t change, they’ll just become fine-tuned.
Now, imagine that you are the little girl. You see your brother eyeing you and your things constantly. You know he wants your stuff… time and again, he has reached out and grabbed it! When you spy him looking at you, you know he’s only a step away from making his move. You try to tell your parents, but they don’t see anything wrong with his eyes staring in your direction. Then he starts to do what you do, and he’s infringing on your space. You say, “He’s copying me,” and your parents say some strange words that seem to amount to telling you that (1) you shouldn’t worry, and (2) you should be happy that he’s giving you that kind of attention. When he finally tackles you to get what he wants, you feel angry, sad, deflated.. And you’ve seen him take more than just your toys. He has also taken the attention of your parents, which is now (necessarily) more divided than it once was. You often feel misunderstood.
The objects of desire may be different, but the roots of many conflicts are the same for adults as they are for children – mutual desire. We are often in the position of the little boy without realizing it – subconsciously forming desires from what we see others having, whether it’s material goods, wealth, position, power, talent, etc. And while we may not consciously calculate how we may acquire something at someone else’s expense, often the things we seek are competitive. Landing a job, for example, often denies another the opportunity to get the same job. We may be far beyond the days of stealing a toy right out of someone’s hand, but we often acquire at someone’s expense. So when we have what we want, we are often in the position of the little girl, guarding what we have, understandably suspicious of others who eye our things, our positions, our successes.
And we may look upon conflicts from the outside bewildered, wondering why people who seem to have so much in common fight. Yet we are oblivious to the fact that our own conflicts also arise from mutual desires and that we almost always have more in common with our adversaries than we would like to admit.
The children fighting in this comic are, in some ways, kids being kids. But they are also humans being humans, and rather than dismiss their fighting as just “what kids do,” it behooves us to understand the roots of their conflicts – and our own!
Change Your Actions:
When we see our children in rivalry, it is tempting to try to ignore it (if it’s not at a screaming or physically violent stage), to try to quell it right away (through bribery or warning of punishment), or to otherwise handle it without really resolving it. But here are some things we can do when we recognize that there is a logic behind their conflict similar to the logic behind our own.
- Acknowledge the feelings and desires of your children. You could ask them to explain the conflict in their own words (if they are old enough) so that they know they are being listened to. If you have younger children who struggle with words, you could say things like [to the little girl] “It’s frustrating when your brother wants your things, isn’t it?” and [to the little boy] “Your sister’s toys do look like fun, but so do these toys over here…” I’ve recently found that naming emotions helps even my toddler feel understood.
- Explain beyond platitudes. Tell the older child that the younger child is learning who s/he wants to be by watching and listening to her/his older sibling. Acknowledge that while that can be frustrating, it is also an honor, and a responsibility, to be a model.
- Model sharing and cooperation. Conflicts often arise over things that we do not know how to share. Some things cannot be shared, but many things can be. I have noticed that my toddler has learned from seeing children and adults rolling a ball. From running to grab the ball out of its path to another child to (sometimes) sitting and waiting for the ball to be rolled to her, my little one is showing signs of learning how to share. It’s a long process!
- Ask for ideas from friends. (Readers, I’m talking to you!)
With some modification, these ideas can be applied to our own conflicts as well. I admit that they are more easily said than done, but if we constantly remind ourselves to see the mutual desire at the heart of a conflict and redirect the resolution of that desire from competition to cooperation, we can more clearly help our children to do the same, and thereby build a more peaceful world.
Image: Special thanks to Susan Drawbaugh, who created this and other comics for the Raven Foundation.
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