Why Children Fight
Why do children fight? One theory is that fighting is an attention-getting
device. True, children often do call in their parents, once the fight is
underway. But if getting attention were their only motivation, children would
not fight unless there were adults present. Yet their fights seem to be every
bit as lively when grownups are not around. Another theory has it that all
fights stem from jealousy — from sibling rivalry. Jealousy can be a big problem,
and may well be a cause of many conflicts. But children do not confine their
fighting to siblings, and jealousy does not always seem to be a factor.
Many different situations and emotions can trigger children’s fighting. They
may be resentful about what they see as an unfair division of chores; they may
be upset about another child trespassing on their territory or borrowing their
possessions. They may be in a bad mood because of problems at school, or
problems of a new neighborhood, or any other kind of problem — and are simply
letting out their frustrations on anyone who is around. They may take another
child’s toy just because it looks interesting, or doodle on another child’s
notebook without thinking, without intending to start a fight. Or they may
deliberately “pick a fight” out of sheer boredom. There may be underlying
psychological motives, or there may not.
There is, however, one very basic cause which probably precipitates most
fights. It is intolerance.
Children who fight are usually intolerant, either of the situation in which
they find themselves or of each other. They then use aggressive means to settle
their differences because they do not know any other way. In Chapter 10, we will
discuss how to help children overcome such intolerance. And we will discuss how
to give children the tools they need in order to resolve their differences
peacefully. But for now let us focus on parents, and their response to their
How Parents Respond
Parents differ in their responses. Generally, they have no particular plan
regarding how to deal with their children’s fighting. They just “play it by
ear.” Here are some of the more common approaches:
Method I — Playing Judge
Some parents try to step in to settle all of their children’s fights. They
feel that, tiresome and burdensome as this may be, it is their duty to be the
judge in all disputes, to play the referee. To this end, they conduct continual,
lengthy, and careful investigations in their efforts to discover which of the
children is the “guilty party.”
We are all familiar with the scenario: Yaakov, age 8, and Rivky, age 7, are
in the playroom. Mom’s in the kitchen. Suddenly, bloodcurdling screams are
heard, followed by sounds of scuffling. In dashes Mom.
Mom (yelling): What happened?!
Rivky: He started it!
Mom: I didn’t ask who started it. I want to know what happened.
Yaakov: She hit me!
Mom (to Rivky): Why did you hit him?
Rivky: He took my toy away!
Mom (to Yaakov): Why did you take her toy away?
Yaakov: It’s not hers! It’s everybody’s!
Mom (to Rivky): It’s not yours. It’s...
Rivky: But he grabbed it while I was playing with it!
Mom (to Yaakov): Why did you grab it while Rivky was playing with it?
Yaakov: She had it long enough!
Mom (to Rivky): Why couldn’t you give Yaakov a turn? Didn’t you have it long
Rivky: No! I only had it a few minutes!
Mom (to Yaakov): She only had it for a few minutes. Why did you have to take
Yaakov: She had it for half an hour!
Mom (to Rivky): Yaakov says you had it for half an hour.
Rivky: Yaakov’s a liar!
Yaakov: You’re a liar!
And so on and so forth. Eventually, Mom pronounces judgment:
Mom: Yaakov, you shouldn’t have grabbed the toy out of Rivky’s hands. Rivky,
you have to share with Yaakov...and you don’t have to hit him either, when
all he wanted was a turn.
What has been accomplished?
- The children are encouraged to involve their parents in their fights.
- Each child vies for a verdict in his/her own favor and tries to have
the other child declared the culprit.
- Although in this case both children were taken to task, more often than
not, one party is clearly held responsible. What happens then is, following
the verdict, the “innocent party” gloats as he watches the “guilty party”
being scolded or spanked. (Very often, the guilty one will be the oldest
child, on the theory that “he/she should know better.”) Thus we encourage the
negative character trait of glorying in another person’s shame, an extremely
unlovely characteristic to possess.
- Meanwhile, the “guilty party,” smarting with resentment along with the
scolding/spanking, is angry at the parent — and, of course, very angry at the
sibling who, as he/she sees it, is the cause of his/her suffering. The scene
has now been set for the next battle.
Method II — “Opting Out”
At the opposite extreme are those parents who “opt out” (or maybe “cop out”)
of any and all involvement. Scenario: Mom is reading a book, when Yaakov comes
Yaakov: Rivky won’t let me play with the firetruck!
(Mom absently, not glancing up): Well, go tell her she has to let you play
Yaakov tells her; Rivky ignores him.
Rivky: Yaakov hit me!
Mom (absently): Well, go tell him it’s not nice to hit people.
Rivky tells him; Yaakov ignores her.
Not very effective.
Method III — Lecturing
Some parents react to their children’s fighting by preaching to them.
Favorite topics on which to lecture are “Brotherly Love” and/or “The Special
Responsibility of the Oldest Child”: “You children should know better. You
should love each other — not fight with each other! The oldest child in a family
has a big responsibility to set an example of proper behavior. The other
children are supposed to listen to him and look up to him and respect him
However, fighting children are angry children. They are in no mood for
sermons. So these parents’ words usually fall on deaf ears.
Method IV — Direct Intervention
Other parents rush into the “thick of battle,” size up the situation
(accurately or not) at a glance, and take to task whichever child seems to be at
fault: If Shifra is crying, she must be the “victim” and Yoni must be to blame.
One problem with this approach is that, while Yoni may indeed be the cause of
Shifra’s tears, the parent doesn’t know what “poor little Shifra” may have done
to provoke Yoni’s aggressive behavior. Besides, children have old scores to
settle; Yoni may well be getting back at Shifra for something she did to him the
But victims are not always treated with kid gloves either. When they come to
complain, they may be told, “Come on, Shifra. I know Yoni’s not hitting you for
nothing — what did you do to him?” Shifra then feels bitter and is likely to go
back to try to settle the score on her own.
Method V — Arbitration
Sometimes parents attempt arbitration. For example, they will try to persuade
one child that the other did not intend to be mean or to hurt him. But the child
is usually left unconvinced and parents often end up in an unpleasant argument.
This is especially unlikely to work if the peacemaking is attempted during the
Method VI — The Last Straw
At times, parents feel they simply can not take any more fighting. It seems
as if they have heard nothing all day but “He hit me!” and “She started it!” and
“He took my toy away!” and “She called me a pest!” The parents’ exasperation
gives way to anger, and they scream, “I can’t stand another minute of this awful
fighting! Stop it! Do you hear me?!” Slaps and spankings may then be distributed
all around. “I don’t care who started it — you’re all getting it!” Such
reactions of anger and violence may help the parents feel better for the moment,
but they are hardly examples from which children can learn how to solve
So What Should Parents Do?
None of the above methods seem to go very far toward solving the problem of
children fighting. Some even appear to aggravate the situation — to cause
additional fights, in a seemingly endless spiral. Yet, except for the
last-mentioned “solution,” there is really nothing wrong with any of these
approaches, per se. We will be using some of these approaches with, however,
significant twists. For instance, there are times when intervention is
appropriate, but we will never play judge. Some situations may call for
nonintervention, but in a constructive — certainly not a “copping-out” — manner.
Similarly, admonishment and arbitration skills might be used, but not in the
heat of anger or battle.
Aside from basic differences in the way we will use these methods, there are
also some essential guidelines that apply to dealing with fighting (and all our
dealings with our children). These are:
Be calm, speak calmly.
Focus on the child’s welfare.
Adopt a problem-solving approach.
See the child in a positive light.
See yourself in a positive light.
Elevate children spiritually.
Of these guidelines, perhaps the most crucial is being calm. In the following
two chapters we will expand on this strategy.