Source: Times Online

Georgia Coleridge

The closest I’ve ever come to strangling all four of my children was during an apocalyptic rush-hour journey to Suffolk, when they were all much smaller. I could have put up with the blinding rain and gridlock in the Blackwall Tunnel if only the complaining hadn’t started as we left and continued for the next four hours.

I’d come prepared. We had talking books and emergency supplies of crisps, which I tossed into the back seat like a zookeeper feeding lumps of meat to a cage of restless lions. I also kept up a stream of increasingly desperate commentary: “Oh, look, children, there’s a tree.” But still they fought and elbowed each other, while my head throbbed from the incessant noise. I remember pulling over outside Braintree, at which point my eldest, then aged 10, jumped out of the car. “I am never getting back in with those freaks,” he growled.

When we finally arrived, I came close to murdering my husband. Not just for looking as sleek and relaxed as an otter (he had arrived on an easy 45-minute train, and had already had a bath and a glass of wine), but for lack of sympathy. “But why,” he asked, “didn’t you tell them to behave?” I could have stabbed him between the eyes with my car key.

He was right, of course. Why couldn’t I get them to stop fighting? It’s not as if they have anything to fight about; there has never been a shortage of food, toys or affection in our house. It puzzled and upset me for years, and I was convinced that everyone else’s children got on much better than mine. It wasn’t until I started writing a book on sibling rivalry that I realised my family wasn’t as dysfunctional as I had feared. Statistically, it would be odder if my children didn’t fight; apparently, eight out of 10 siblings argue, thump and call each other terrible names.

I don’t ever allow hitting, but these days I am more relaxed about the rest. As they keep reassuring me, they enjoy insulting each other and find it funny. Last weekend, they discovered a new way to do it, typing un-PC words into our new Apple Mac, and getting the computer to read them aloud, Stephen Hawking-style. “Tomm-ee is ug-lee and stink-ee,” repeated the electronic voice over and over again.

If I don’t overreact, I notice that my children fight less than they used to. For years, they knew that the way to get attention was to needle their brother or sister, wait for the wail, and bingo! I’d come running in to break it up. I am the oldest of five children. Though I was never jealous of my much younger half-siblings, for years my full sister and I didn’t get on. I suspect that this was partly because we weren’t allowed to fight. If I was mean to her, she would cry, and my father would explain to me with a big sigh that she was my little sister, and I had always to love her.

I made the same mistake with my own children. My daughter, Sophie, would come to me, her baby-seal eyes full of tears, complaining about the latest outrage inflicted by her older brothers. Because she was crying and they were scowling, I invariably took her side. Like me at their age, the boys knew they couldn’t thump their sister, but they resented her and tried other ways to undermine her. The breakthrough came when I realised that Sophie wasn’t the only one who needed sympathy. I had to listen to the boys’ side of the story, accept that their feelings were normal, too, and, if necessary, let Sophie take some of the blame for winding them up or touching their stuff. The first time, I was horrified by the nasty things they said. But, like letting steam out of a pressure cooker, it was the turning point in the relationship.

Now three of them are teenagers, the new challenge is to ensure they spend enough time together. Our secret weapon is our weekend house in Worcestershire, with its erratic boiler. The TV room is so cold, we all sit on the sofa like sardines under a duvet. When I see my children with their arms around each other, laughing at The Simpsons, I feel grateful for their robust and forthright relationship.

Sibling Rivalry: Seven Simple Solutions by Karen Doherty and Georgia Coleridge (Bantam Press £12.99) is published on Thursday

TIPS FOR HAPPY KIDS

Don’t label your children “the troublemaker”, “the kind one”, or “the hard worker”. They will all go through stages, and there’s room for more than one kind, clever, hard-working child in each family.

If they won’t stop bickering, walk out of the room. If you deprive them of an audience, they may shut up.

If the quarrel is complicated and they are both in the wrong, listen, then ask them how to sort it out. They might just surprise you.

If you’re tense, they will inevitably pick it up and their fighting will be worse.

It’s worth making the effort to get bored, cooped-up children out of the house. In the fresh air, the aggro may evaporate.

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