Learning to Argue

A story of mediating conflict between young siblings, rather than solving it for them.

My then-2yo “Summer” was lying on the ground in the middle of the living room floor, playing with toys underneath her blanket like a tent. My then-4yo “Apollo” was driving toy cars around. I was in the kitchen, which is adjacent to the living room, cooking dinner.

I heard Apollo say “Summer move.” About three seconds later, he was crying, because that’s about how long he could tolerate her taking to comply with his verbal request. “Summer mooooove. Summer, MOVE.”

I put down what I was cooking, turned off the burner, and walked over to where they were, putting my body in between the two of them. If I don’t, it becomes physical almost immediately; they don’t have the conflict resolution skills yet without an adult there. “What’s up, buddy?”

“DO YOU WANT SUMMER MOVE,” he screamed, meaning, “I want Summer to move”. I could tell that he was trying to drive his car along the length of the living room, and because of furniture, she was blocking the open space he would need to do that.

Instinctually, I tried to solve it for him. “What if you drive your car the other way?” I said, gesturing to indicate the width of the room instead. This was predictably met by “NOOOO!”

I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I am not invested in the outcome of their fights. It doesn’t actually matter to me where he drives his car in the room, or if my daughter lays on the floor or gets up. I have no opinion in the matter. I am here to help them learn how to solve problems, which will be a lifelong skill. Negotiate with others, which will be a lifelong skill. The small particulars of car-driving and floor-laying are not.

I rephrased his problem to him, so that he would have the language for it and so that he would know that I understand what he’s saying. Sometimes, when I immediately jump to problem-solving, I forget that he may or may not even know whether I’ve literally understood what he’s saying. “Oh, you’re trying to drive your car this way and Summer’s in the way.”

“Summer GO AWAY,” he emphatically confirms. By this point, Summer’s stuck her head out of the blanket to see what all the fuss is about. “No,” she says, without even really knowing what she’s saying no to, since that’s just kind of an instinctual reaction for both of them at this stage.

“Summer says she doesn’t want to go away,” I echo.

“I ASK HER,” my son wails, protesting the injustice that he has asked her to move and she is still not doing it—a concept that both of them, again, are really struggling with lately (they feel like if they use their words to ask something then it should just happen! Because they did it right!)

“I know you asked her,” I reassure him. I say again to her, “Apollo is asking if you can move out of the way.”

“NO. It’s MYYYYYY CARPET,” she yells back, confident in her desire to sit in exactly this spot on the floor.

Again, my brain wants to fix this situation. For a lot of reasons. Because conflict is uncomfortable for humans; because I am technically big enough to forcibly solve it. Because I could pick her up and move her to somewhere else on the floor. Because I need to get back to dinner, but if I step away then I will be letting them shove one another. I remind myself, yet again, that it doesn’t matter to me how they solve this.

Lately, usually, solutions to their arguments that they both have come up with have looked a lot like one of them getting distracted or “giving up” or whatever. That is fine. That is a solution that they come up with and they resonate with, even if it feels silly to me. I give this situation silent, mental permission to go the same way.

I am doing nothing but standing here, being a presence, and clarifying their words to one another, since they don’t have the language skills to do it for themselves yet. I am making absolutely no move one way or the other. Apollo is sobbing and holding his car up to me in a helpless gesture. Now that Summer is looking at me, I realize she may not even understand the situation, since she was wrapped up in her own play before. “Summer, Apollo wants to drive his car this way. He can’t fit, because your blanket and your feet.” (It’s not correct grammar, I know. I shorten sentences a lot or else I lose ‘em. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but I do it.)

She reaches out to touch the car in his hands. I tense up, because this is again where it could get physical, but he doesn’t seem to mind her touching the car. Gears are turning in her head as she tries to understand the situation.

“Make a gate,” Apollo sobs. A glimmer of compromise.

I point at the furniture and at her feet. “I think he’s asking if you can make a gate.”

“I open it!” she chirps, lifting her feet. Now I do the first physical thing I’ve done this whole situation, which is help move her blanket out of the way too, since she’s made the first move to “help” and it’s not her fault that her 2yo level of coordination is not really actually making a way for him to drive the car through.

And then about 0.5 milliseconds later she gets uncomfortable with the way she would have to sit to hold her feet up to be a gate and instead adjusts her whole body so she’s out of the way and watching him drive the car the way he wanted to, and she grabs a second car and drives it along behind him, and the situation is diffused, and I walk away to go back to cooking.

Other solutions in the past few days have included one of them sobbing loudly about a toy in the other’s hand until the other just gives it to them. This has happened in both directions (i.e. not always just one child “taking” and one child “giving”.) It prickles my adult problem-solving skills but I know it’s the seeds of empathy taking root. Do I want my kids to be 40 and cry uncontrollably until someone else gives up and gives them what they want? No, of course not. Do I have to worry about them doing that when they’re 40 because they do it when they’re 4? No, of course not. It’s developmentally appropriate at 4.

By sitting back and letting it be uncomfortable, letting them have emotions running high and the feeling of discomfort of a problem that needs to be fixed, I let their brains and bodies have enough time to process what solutions look like. By keeping myself there to block, I help those solutions mature beyond the earliest baby and toddler self-advocacy stage of push, grab, shove, take, and into a social sphere of preschoolers and early elementary, where people must negotiate and feel and discuss and compromise.