"Help! My Kids Are Fighting!": Refocus Them Using This Game
Siblings + small spaces = disaster. Try this easy game to change their mindset.
Posted Mar 23, 2020
Mommy, she’s LOOKING at me!
Mommy, he used my crayons and now they’re all worn down.
Mommy, she called me a Booboo face…
Sibling rivalry has always been a problem, and in many ways, it’s a good thing. After all, the sibling relationship is where kids can test out their problem-solving strategies, learn to fairly share resources, and learn to be supportive to another person. Sometimes, fighting is a crucial step on that path.
Usually, the sibling wars end when a new, more interesting event grabs their attention. Both kids go off to school, get involved with other pursuits, and the war over the last Pop-Tart is forgotten. Now, with coronavirus, the sibling wars can rage, uninterrupted, for days on end.
This crisis provides us with an opportunity to teach kids about how mindset can completely transform our experience of any stressful experience. We can’t change coronavirus. We can’t change the fact that we adults don’t have many of the answers that we used to. We can’t always solve boredom or frustration. But we can teach our kids how to change their mindset.
The “Kindness Game” Solution
Here’s how it works:
Each sibling can give a kindness point to another sibling, by telling a parent what kindness that person did for them. In our house, we’ve heard about kindnesses like:
- She shared her crayons with me.
- He let me listen to my teacher’s teleconference story before he listened to his teacher.
- She helped me with my math homework.
- He read me a story.
- They (all the kids) cleaned up the toys and gave Mommy a big surprise.
The goal is to look for the good in our siblings and to provide our siblings with a chance to be kind to us. Instead of the crayons being “a scarce resource I must hoard and protect from my younger sister” they become “a way I can be kind to my younger sister (after I ask her to be careful not to pick off their wrappers).”
This refocuses their mindset on “How can I be kind today? Who needs kindness, and how can I provide it?” Instead of siblings at war, we have siblings actively trying to be kind to one another.
The incentive for a contest like this can be time alone with a parent to play a board game, a new game for the family, a new outdoor toy, or any other item that the child might enjoy earning. (For more about how to set up behavior modification systems, click here and here.)
One key rule of the game is that no one can take away kindness points. If we allow kids to take away kindness points for each other, they’ll simply use the game as another way to fight, and you’ll be playing referee all day.
- “Mommy, he stuck his tongue out at me. Take away 20 kindness points!”
- “Mommy, she’s breathing loudly again! Take away her kindness points!"
Since we’re trying to teach our kids to focus only on being kind and appreciating the kindnesses done to them, it makes no sense to incentivize looking for the opposite.
Remember, the goal of this game is to teach our children some crucial mindset skills, not to engage in situation-specific behavior management. In general, when setting up any sort of behavior modification plan, our goal is not to control our children. Our goal is to teach our children to control themselves!
Focusing on kindness also teaches children a crucial intersubjectivity skill. Intersubjectivity is the ability to engage in “mind-reading,” being able to understand and intuit another’s mental state. We want to teach our kids intersubjectivity, because eventually, they will be back at school, and they will need to dust their social skills off! Intersubjectivity is an important component of social skills.
Here’s how it worked in my house:
My 6-year-old son was trying to engage my 3-year-old daughter, in order to be kind to her. She was sitting and staring into space.
"Mommy, I’m trying and trying and trying to be kind to her, but she doesn’t want anything."
I told him we must try to read her mind. It’s possible that she doesn’t really understand what’s going on, and maybe she’s very sad about missing her teacher and her school. He thought for a minute and dashed off upstairs.
He came back down with a group of teddy bears, arranged them in a circle around his sister, and said: "This is Pretend Pre-K. Let’s do Morning Circle Time."
Before long, his little sister was joining along enthusiastically, singing songs and having morning circle time, complete with a story that he “read” her (by reciting a picture book he knows by heart).
I pointed out that this was extra kind. Not only did he figure out why his sister was sad, but he also figured out a plan to help her feel much better. We talked about how it’s easiest to be kind to another person when we first try to “read their mind” and figure out why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling.
Humans have a negativity bias. Our brains naturally look for the negative things to think about – because the negatives are those things that can kill us. That’s why the news disproportionately carries bad and scary stories, with only a few neutral or “feel good” stories. Our brains actively look for things that can be dangerous. The only way to combat that is to do so mindfully.
If kids are home together, and their brains are focused on looking for problems, they will find those problems! Since their siblings are around, their siblings will become the focus of that gaze, and mayhem can ensue. The only way to combat this is to actively give our brains something positive to focus on instead and to stack the incentives in favor of looking for ways to be kind.
When totaling up the points of the kindness contest each day, talk to your kids about how this simple mindset shift — focusing on kindness instead of fights — makes the house a much more pleasant place to be in. Explain the brain’s negativity bias to them, and point out that we can be smarter than our own brains, by training ourselves to focus on the positive, instead of the negative.
Making Kindness Contagious
Coronavirus may be contagious, but so is kindness. And when kindness goes “viral” in your home, it’s a much more pleasant place for everyone. Kids may not realize that they are this powerful until you point it out to them.
This is an opportunity to talk to kids about carrying this “kindness” mindset forward after coronavirus is over. If we’re always focusing on how we can be kind to another person, if we’re always focusing on trying to read another person’s mind and mood, we can make our home, or our classrooms, or the world, a better place. Let’s look at this coronavirus crisis as a boot camp! It’s intensive training in the kindness mindset, for life.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020
Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S, Gollan JK. The negativity bias: Conceptualization, quantification, and individual differences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2014;37(3):309-310. doi:10.1017/s0140525x13002537