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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Summer Squabbles

By Gina Rich

Warm sunshine. Ice cream. Lazy days splashing around the pool. After a soul-crushing winter and a spring that felt like a second round of winter, parents and children alike are ready for summer to arrive. But what happens when kids who’ve been in separate classrooms all year long are suddenly together for several hours every day?

My children are 20 months apart in age, and their bickering reaches an alarming intensity once summer hits. Sometime during the month of May, as I watch the remaining school days dwindle on the calendar, my stress level rises exponentially, and I start loading up my Amazon cart with chocolate and earplugs.

But maybe this summer will be different, I always tell myself. I’ll plan ahead. My kids will be so busy they won’t have time to fight. I’ll regale them with enriching activities. I’ll perfect my arsenal of slime recipes, choreograph regular play dates, and thrill the neighborhood kids with my expertise in creating backyard water blobs.

Realistically, I know I’ll do none of this. So I’ve scaled back my expectations. Below are some strategies that I’m hoping will help me preserve my remaining sanity from June until September.

Let each child create a personal “calm down” space at home. When tensions are high, having a designated special area for each child allows for personal space and provides a fun alternative to the tired refrain, “Go to your room.” In our house, my oldest daughter commandeered a comfortable chair in the living room and stocked it with a few books, stuffed animals, a blanket, and a water bottle.

Consider separate eating areas during particularly challenging times. While it’s important for families to share meals together whenever possible, sometimes less is more. If the mere act of making eye contact with each other across the breakfast table sparks an argument between your kids, consider allowing them to dine in separate rooms just for one meal. I’ve observed that once my kids are more awake and appropriately fueled with food, they are less likely to push each other’s buttons—and mine. 

Plan special dates with each child on a regular basis. Even a brief amount of 1:1 time together—away from siblings and the temptation to compete—can be like hitting the reset button on a child’s behavior. These occasions need not be lengthy and can be incorporated into the family schedule. Examples include playing a card or board game after dinner, or shopping together for favorite meal ingredients. Perhaps designate which day and time these will happen each week, so kids can look forward to, and help plan, what they want to do together. Plus, it allows for some routine in the otherwise lazy days of summer.

Set mini goals. Let’s face it: There is no universe in which siblings can refrain from bickering 100 percent of the time. It seems to be hardwired into their DNA. Instead of aiming for perfection, set mini goals for behavior throughout the day, and reward success. For example, if my kids can peacefully stay on task in the morning, they get to choose a show to watch together after everyone is ready.

Retire your role as the referee. Too often, I inject myself into my children’s squabbles when the best course of action was to simply refrain from getting involved. Decide in which situations you’ll intervene—for example, if the argument becomes physical or if there is hurtful name-calling—and let your kids know these guidelines.

Remind yourself that sibling disagreements are normal and can help kids practice conflict resolution skills. When the invariable bickering arises, brew yourself a cup of coffee or tea and calmly inform your kids that, unless it’s a true emergency, you’re unavailable to hear their grievances until such-and-such time. If you have to, leave the room in order to get your point across.

If all else fails, earplugs are always an option. 

Gina Rich lives in Wisconsin, where she writes about parenting, health, and the natural world for publications including the Washington Post, Notre Dame Magazine, and others.