Stop Refereeing Your Kids! (It Starts with Knowing your 3 Ws)

By Lisa Friedlander

I don’t know about you, but my 3 kids (a 14-year-old girl, an 11-year-old boy, and a 9-year-old girl) seem to argue a lot more than I ever did with my two brothers. I often feel like I should wear a black and white striped referee’s shirt and sling a whistle around my neck. 

Over the years, however, I have learned to recognize what I call the 3 Ws: WHY are my kids arguing? WHEN are my kids arguing? And WHO are they arguing with? The answers to these simple questions often help me recognize certain patterns of behavior, and when I pay attention to them, I can effectively intervene in the situation in ways that are useful and proactive.

WHY: WHY are your kids arguing? And WHAT are they arguing about? (Oops, maybe there are
4 Ws.) If they are arguing over a possession: “This is my iTouch!” or “That’s my pair of jeans shorts” or “These are my shin guards!” I recommend that you label, label, and label—any item that’s at the center of a conflict. Stick your kid’s initials on the thing with stickers, sharpies, nail polish, anything that will clearly designate ownership so that there is no longer any question about whose iPad, water bottle, phone charger, whatever, is at the center of the melee.

For things that your kids must share, establish turn-taking rules—and maybe even set up a chart that tracks whose turn it is to use which item. This especially useful for the family computer and the television.

A second WHY may simply be boredom. Yes, plain, old-fashioned boredom is the root of many an argument in my house. Nothing makes me feel closer to my mom than when I yell, “I don’t want to hear you say you’re bored in this house. Go play!” Even though it annoys me to no end, though, kids do get bored. And they often try to counteract this boredeom by figuring out who they can annoy the most. Typically, in my family, this happens when the 11-year-old boy starts to completely annoy and torture his 9-year-old sister by teasing her, invading her space (think hair-pulling), and taking her things, just to get a rise out of her. Things spiral out of control quickly, and arguments arise over who did what to whom, and why.

To attempt to avoid this altogether, as soon as the boredom complaints start, I redirect my kids’ attention, insisting they go outside, get out a board game, or call a friend. I don’t give my kids many opportunities to be bored at home; I’ve got them signed up for multiple sports teams (which they do enjoy) so often there is only one day a week where they have nothing to do in the afternoon. Some people may claim I’ve got them overscheduled; I say, it’s keeping my sanity. 

A final WHY could be territory. Territory is space. Girls seem to need more space than boys do, and teen girls require even more—especially if there are younger siblings around, which is when you can hear a lot of “Get out of my room” or “I was there first.” Kids need to feel that their space is protected and respected. To facilitate this, I recommend rules like requiring knocking upon entering someone’s room, or staying away from your sibling when friends are over. And if your kids are old enough, talk to them about the need for everyone to respect each other.

WHEN: Ask yourself, WHEN do your kids argue the most? In our house, the answer is usually 1) when they haven’t had enough sleep; 2) they’ve had too much togetherness; and 3) they have been confined in too-close quarters. Do you see a pattern emerge when you're at the beach for a week-long vacation and by day 4, your whistle is already in full use? Or did one of your kids have a sleepover the night before and now has zero patience for anything or anyone? Obviously, not all of these things can be avoided but if you keep them in mind and are able to modify a few things on your schedule, or invite their friends along to keep kids distracted and entertained, or rent a two-bedroom apartment instead of one hotel room (which, by the way, is often cheaper, too), you might help keep the whistle-blowing to a minimum.  

WHO: Is one of your beautiful, magnificent children the usual culprit in starting a fight? Does one of them have a short fuse? Does one of them like to bug the other one just for fun? Is someone just looking for attention from dear old Mom? Personalities are certainly part of the equation here. But If one of your kids seems to be the offender more often than not, sit down with him or her and figure out the WHY for this WHO. Then, try a behavioral reward system. We offer points, which we tally on a rewards chart we hang on the fridge, for just about anything— from trying new foods, to doing homework without complaining, to completing chores without being asked, to, yes, not arguing with siblings. Points are exchanged for money or outings or other special incentives. The reward system does work, but you must be consistent and reward in small increments, so the positivity is felt frequently.

Still,  kids will argue, and you will probably have to don that oh-so-unflattering ref’s uniform more often than you would like. But I believe that, like anything else in this world, managing arguing kids is about balance and trying to understand  the root of the behavior you are trying to change. And the 3 Ws have helped me get in tune with my kids so that positive changes can be made. One day, I hope to retire my whistle and referee’s uniform forever!

Lisa Friedlander is the co-founder of Activity Rocket, an open table for kids’ classes, camps & sports.

Photograph: Flickr: vinthomas via Creative Commons