by James A. Kenny, Ph.D.
“My pre-teen-age boys get into fights regularly,” complained one foster parent. “It’s hard to stop them. My caseworker warns me against punishment. Help!”
Too many parents use the L-Y-P method of discipline (Lecture-Yell-Punish). After some misbehavior, the parent begins with logic, by explaining at length. Shortly, the lecture may deteriorate into nagging, and sometimes gives way to demanding and shouting by the parent. When that doesn’t work, the parent may threaten and punish.
There is more to discipline than punishment. There are better methods available for obtaining compliance. The important goal is not to punish but to stop the misbehavior.
Fighting between siblings is as old as mankind. Not just foster children. Even animal sibs go after each other. The combatants are scrambling for dominance, for recognition, for possessions, or simply to get their way. Some parents attempt to referee the issue. They may try a sermon about how we need to be nice and not hurt other people. Or they intervene with a demand that the fighting stop. If the combatants are truly angry, that is like trying to hold back a river flowing downhill.
Don’t waste time arguing. Instead, take action. Call a time-out. Physically separate the combatants. Then distract at least one of them with an alternate activity. Having them perform an action will be more effective than asking them to sit still.
Perhaps they can be directed to a pre-assigned special chair. One family made the separation and distraction into a game they called Hugo (“You go….”) The child who was designated as Hugo was sent somewhere else, outside or to the kitchen. The parents were surprised when being named Hugo became seen as a treat. “Why can’t I be Hugo?” The game was good discipline because it stopped the fighting.
Ritualized dueling with nerf balls or water balloons is an active game that may help defuse fighting. The parent hands each child a nerf ball and announces that a duel will be held. Then dad places the battlers back to back, hands them their “weapon,” and counts off three steps, after which they can turn and fire. When it works, the duel can capture the angry energy and translate it into laughter and fun. Good luck!