Sibling rivalry is certainly no stranger to any parent. We can spend the vast majority of our time playing referee and teaching our children how to share and co-exist without killing each other. Some days it feels like making it to the end of the day with everyone still alive is victory enough.
But what if it could be easier? What if we could find that one magic phrase that can make peaceful days the norm as opposed to a concept we heard about once in a far off land?
For my family, we found just that.
A Common Scenario
Away I work in the kitchen – loading the dishwasher, making some snacks – going about fairly routine housework. Everything sounds peaceful around the home. The children are all playing, loudly, though contently. I soak in the sounds of the rare moment of unity…
…for two minutes…
…then reality hits. One child is crying, another is screaming and the third runs into their room and slams the door.
In steps mom, a highly skilled investigator after years of similar such incidences. I comfort the injured and question the witness before tracking down the supposed perpetrator. Armed with what information I have been given by the two self-proclaimed innocents, I go have a chat with the accused offender, usually to discover that the story is extremely complex filled with toy-taking, smug glances, and unkind words ultimately ending in someone getting pushed or hit.
How did things ever turn out this way? Where did they learn this behavior? My husband and I are peaceful parents who do not believe in corporal punishment of any kind. Discipline is used as guidance in our home. We believe in natural consequences not arbitrary chastisement. We use each situation to teach empathetic compassion by discussing feelings and reactions.
And yet, the kids still have moments where eruptions turn physical.
Fight or Flight
An Instinctual Response
It makes sense, really. We are instinctual creatures with inborn fight or flight responses. In the eyes of a toddler, having a toy ripped from their grasp becomes a life or death matter according to the cortisol levels in their brains.
So how do we stop this behavior?
Of course, leading by example is always the best teacher, but as I stated, my husband and I already live out the non-aggressive principle (NAP) in our day to day lives. But sometimes even that isn’t enough. Example is great to get the idea across, but children also need to be educated and armed with tools to make peace work.
When fight or flight takes over, a child needs a reliable and easy to remember go-to response that works in every situation, requiring little logic (since logic usually is the first to go when cortisol levels are up) and based in love (to teach the power of strengthening bonds through empathy) and thus our family phrase was born.
Hugs or High Fives
No matter the situation, we resort to hugs or high fives.
Every time a child starts to get revved up by the behavior of another, we say hugs or high fives.
If one child doesn’t want to wait their turn for a toy, we say hugs or high fives.
The toddler is seeking some attention so he goes to hit his brother, we say hugs or high fives.
Sometimes the phrase doesn’t fit. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. Initially it was met with “but mom, he took my car!” But we would still respond with hugs or high fives.
This simple phrase is not meant to Band-Aid problems, gloss over very acceptable emotions or give any child freedom to steal what is not theirs.
What it is meant to do is trigger to a young mind that there are better options than hitting. In the heat of the moment, it is catchy enough that it comes straight to the front of their mind, halting dangerous or regrettable behavior and allowing the situation to diffuse enough that conversation and problem-solving can begin.
When the one year old steals the car of the three year old and fight or flight takes over, the phrase clicks and the three year old holds up a hand and says “high five.” The moment is diffused enough for composure to be regained while taking the route of building bonds rather than breaking them. From there, they can seek a mediator or solve the problem for themselves.
Since implementing this bond-building phrase, there have actually been situations where a simple hug instead of a push has led to the offended willingly and graciously offering a toy to the offender as their ultimate solution.
Is it a perfect system? Of course not. In the learning process, everyone makes mistakes. Anger can still lead even adults to resort to regrettable behaviors. But it has lessened the drama, created a familiar family bond and laid the groundwork for showing love even when you don’t feel very loving.
Our New Reality
As I putter around the kitchen, popping the casserole in the stove and filling colorful plastic sippy cups with milk, I hear the excited sounds of three children playing, giggling and squealing. The “vroom vroom” of a toy car and the “choo choo” of a train.
Two minutes later, a moment of silence, followed by a five year old’s voice: “Hug?”
No more investigator. No more perpetrator. No more victims. Just children learning that there are always better options.