QUESTION: Sometimes I feel as though my children fight and argue as a method of attracting my attention. If this is the case, how should I respond?
DR. DOBSON: You are probably correct in making that assumption. Sibling rivalry often represents a form of manipulation of parents.Quarreling and fighting provide an opportunity for both children to "capture" adult attention. It has been written, "Some children would rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all." A pair of obnoxious kids can tacitly agree to bug their parents until they get a response - even if it is an angry reaction. One father told me that his son and his nephew began to argue and then beat each other with their fists. Both fathers were nearby and decided to let the fight run its natural course. During the first lull in the action, one of the boys glanced sideways toward the passive men and said, "Isn't anybody going to stop us before we get hurt?!"
The fight, you see, was something neither boy wanted. Their violent combat was directly related to the presence of the two adults and would have taken a different form if the boys had been alone. Children will "hook" their parents' attention and intervention in this way.
Believe it or not, this form of sibling rivalry is easiest to control. The parent must simply render the behavior unprofitable to each participant. I would recommend that you review the problem (for example, a morning full of bickering) with the children, and then say: "Now listen carefully. If the two of you want to pick on each other and make yourselves miserable, then be my guest (assuming there is a fairly equal balance of power between them). Go outside and fight until you're exhausted. But it's not going to occur under my feet anymore. It's over! And you know that I mean business when I make that kind of statement. Do we understand each other?"
Having made the boundaries clear, I would act decisively the instant either boy returned to his bickering. If I had separate bedrooms, I would confine one child to each room for at least 30 minutes of complete boredom without radio, computers or television. Or I would assign one to clean the garage, the other to mow the lawn. Or I would make them take a nap. My purpose would be to make them believe me the next time I asked for peace and tranquility. It is simply not necessary to permit children to destroy the joy of living. And what is most surprising, children are the happiest when their parents enforce reasonable limits with love and dignity.
QUESTION: I have observed that elementary and junior high school students - even high schoolers - tend to admire strict teachers. Common sense would tell us that they would like those who are easier on them. Why do you think they are drawn to the disciplinarians?
DR. DOBSON: You are right; teachers who maintain order and demand the most from their students are often the most respected members of the faculty, provided they aren't mean and grouchy. One who can control a class without being unpleasant is almost always esteemed by her students. That is true because there is safety in order. When a class is out of control, particularly at the elementary-school level, the children are afraid of each other. If the teacher can't make the class behave, how can she prevent a bully from doing his thing? How can she keep the students from laughing at one of its less able members? Children can be vicious to each other, and they feel good about having a teacher who is strong but kind.
Second, children love justice. When someone has violated a rule, they want immediate retribution. They admire the teacher who can enforce an equitable legal system, and they find great comfort in reasonable social expectations. The teacher who does not control her class inevitably allows crime to pay, violating something basic in the value system of children.
Third, children admire strict teachers because chaos is nerve-wracking. Screaming and hitting and wiggling are fun for about 10 minutes; then the confusion begins to get tiresome and irritating.
I have smiled in amusement many times as second- and third-grade children astutely evaluated the relative disciplinary skills of their teachers. They know how a class should be conducted. I only wish all of their teachers were equally aware of this important attribute.