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The Big Fight

Yesterday on the way home in the car my kids had a fight. A fight that resulted in both of them being in tears. A fight that involved me validating their feelings, but also telling them how damn lucky they are that they can get upset over such things.

By way of background to the conversation, you need to know that we went to Cuba in December. When we go to Cuba, we always bring tons of clothes and shoes that our kids have grown out of and pass them on to the maids, waiters, etc for their kids. On the last day, we were all packed up and ready to go. Emma was wearing her sneakers and rather than packing her pink sandals that I knew would no longer fit by the time summer came around, we gave them to the maid who had a two year old girl. Although Emma had previously been happy to give things away and even picked out toys of hers to give to other children, for some reason she got REALLY upset about these particular sandals. We explained that they wouldn't fit her anymore. We explained that this little girl really needed some sandals. We explained that she could choose some new ones in the Spring. None of that mattered. They were hers and she was upset. Since then, every now and again, if Emma is mildly upset about something, Julian will ask "Emma, do you still miss your sandals?", which of course makes her even more upset and can turn a mild whimper into a full blown temper tantrum at which point he will try, unsuccessfully, to calm her down with promises that she will get new sandals in the Spring.

Fast forward to yesterday. I had Emma in the car with me and we went to pick Julian up at school. Once all three of us were in the car, the discussion started:
Julian: Are there any brownies left at home?

Me: I don't know. I haven't been home yet. Emma, did you and Daddy eat the brownies?

Emma: Yes. We ate them. They are all gone.

Julian: But I wanted a BROWNIE (starts to whimper)

Emma: They are all gone. There are none left.

Me: I know you are upset, but the brownies were a treat. You had two of them yesterday. We'll get some more another time.

Julian: [sulk, whine]

Emma: Julian...

Emma: Julian...

Emma: Julian...I want to tell you something.

Julian: I don't want her to talk to me.

Me: Julian, she misses you when you're at school. She just wants to talk to you. Please listen to her.

Julian: No, I don't want to.

Me: Julian, please.

Julian: No. Don't talk to me.

Emma: Julian...

Me: Emma, please don't talk to him right now. He's upset. You can talk to me instead.

Emma: I don't want to. I want to tell Julian something.

Julian: No. Don't talk to me.

[several more rounds of this back and forth]

Emma: Julian - we can get some more brownies at the store another day.

Julian: Don't talk to me. [whines, cries]

Emma: Julian, I want to talk to you.

Me: Julian, please talk to your sister. It is rude to ignore her.

Julian: No. I don't want to. She isn't being nice.

Me: What do you mean?

Julian: She said we'll buy more brownies at the store. That wasn't nice. That is just like when I say that we'll buy her more sandals at the store and you say that isn't nice.



So I turned up the news. Let them have their cry. Waited a bit. Then told them about Haiti. It felt kind of like the "eat your dinner - don't you know there are children in Africa who are starving" line. But I didn't know what else to do and it kind of seemed necessary at that point. Sigh.
« Intersecting Needs: Maslow, interdependence, parenting, caregiving, relationships | Main | Child's Hierarchy of Needs »

Reader Comments (37)

I've been feeling lucky about the scale of my problems lately and trying to share a bit of this thinking with Reid, too. I don't know how much she is taking in, but it does seem necessary, as you said.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMom on the Go


though, this is my future. Wven now, the baby (11 mths) reaches out her hands across her car seat to try and 'touch' him, because then he says 'she's trying to touch me' or yells at her and he gets in trouble. Finally, I looked at her once while doing it and she was smirking. I think it was on purpose! ha!

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Gotta love sibling fights. Mine do not have that many yet but they will. I am sure we all use the others have it worse than us thing. I try not to use it because of my kids histories. I do not want to come across as I am their savior.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterUpstatemomof3

Thanks for sharing, Annie! Those are the kind of fights we have at home and it really feels good to know that siblings fight and don't listen to their mom when suggesting alternatives. I swear that I could have change the names to fit those of my daughters and would have applied perfectly. You are definitively not alone.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErica

It sounds like you handled the situation great, Annie. I think the "hungry kids in Africa/Haiti" card was well played. I really want my kids to KNOW how lucky they are to have been born here and not on another continent. The last thing I want is for them to grow up with the sense of entitlement that is so sickening everywhere I look (here in N.America).

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy @ Muddy Boots

The hardest thing I am doing with my boys is learning to let them fight and resolve it themselves. Since one is 5 and one 2.5, there's a bit of a power imbalance, but I'm working on it. That being said, there are times when I've resorted to the "there are kids starving in Africa" line of reasoning.

The hardest thing for me is the pervasive sense of entitlement we all have (to some degree) because by luck of geography we live one of the richest places on earth. It so hard to keep that in check for myself, let alone my kids.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

Is it insensitive to say that that story came out sounding quite funny? But maybe that's just because I haven't reached the stage of sibling fights yet.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

I am so not looking forward to when both of my boys (2 & 8 months) are old enough to talk to each other, because if they are anything like their father, and his brother... it won't be too nice. LOL

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle

Typical kid fight, IMO. My brother and I are only 14 months apart, and we fought like cats and dogs growing up. Now, we're all lovey dovey. :-) Even as teens, when we were still fighting some, we made up pet names for each other, which we still use.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Y.


I want my kids to know how lucky they are. I also want them to be very aware of their privilege. I think it was appropriate to raise Haiti in this discussion, but I felt cheap doing it for some reason. Maybe I felt I should have brought it up in a different context. But I'm not sure. On the one hand, I want them to be able to feel and express emotions, even negative ones. But at the same time, I want them to regulate those feelings a bit and realize that not having brownies and sandals that no longer fit is NOT the end of the world.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

we have a singleton so he fights with us. so no contribution from the sibling fights angle

however, i can remember my mother using the "there are kids starving in africa" line in an effort to .... well, i'm not quite sure what she was trying to do but the end effect was that our problems were not worth tuppence and the worries of a child were nothing.
not sure if that's the message i'd like to hand out to my wee guy as he struggles with certain developmental/maturation concepts

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterebbandflo aka pomomama

@Channa: Not insensitive at all. It was funny and not. To me, it is funny to get so worked up about such things. To my kids though, those emotions are very real. It is hard to use those opportunities to teach them to deal with their emotions rather than just giggling. But after the fact I can certainly sit and giggle about it.

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

@ebbandflo aka pomomama:

"the end effect was that our problems were not worth tuppence and the worries of a child were nothing"

That is what I struggled with. I don't want to give the message that their worries are nothing, but at the same time I do want them to realize how lucky they are, be thankful for it, and have empathy with others (rather than just selfishly thinking about their own brownies/sandals).

January 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

we are currently struggling with some behavioural issues and i am up to my armpits in parenting/child behaviour books right now. my current 'take' on fears/worries/concerns/kvetches/angsts and so on issuing forth from my wee guy is that they should all be considered as important to him and that he needs to be shown 'how' to deal with them by some appropriate parental modeling (oh boy!) and empathy

my usual 'take' on behavioural issues is that good behaviour towards others is generally altruistic and will net you equally good results back most of the time, hence reminding wee guy that his behaviours make mummy happy/sad/frustrated etc (and so on for friends, family ...)

my past, present and no doubt future struggle is that i feel it's like holding him emotional blackmail to behave well, and that i'm guilting him by making him aware of the effect he has on others, that he is better off than others, and that maybe good behaviour should be innate ...... which is of course tosh since it really has to be learned and that's partly why societal norms/community rules/religious codes were introduced

i'm not sure at what point children do start to think more widely about remote issues, such as starving kids in africa, but they can and do start repeating modeled behavioural responses when they appreciate the generally 'niceness' from others that these actions generate.

next week i shall be ramping up the empathy while introducing co-operative problem solving ... and applying wrinkle cream to my furrowed brow

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterebbandflo aka pomomama

When my little brother arrived, quite unexpectedly, when my older brother was 13 and I was 9, my mother called his car seat in the back of our tiny car the "molded plastic sibling separator." It didn't always fulfill its function.

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLauren @ Hobo Mama

Thanks for the giggle, Annie. My three boys are having this kind of day today. They know that the 9yr old is feeling fragile (will scream at almost anything), and so the 11 and 15 year olds have been needling him all day, knowing it's the tiniest things that will set off the screaming attack. Like nails on a blackboard, so are the days of our parenting lives. :)

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo @Mediamum

Ah yes the "fight"

Do you think it is too much to try to teach a four-year-old the word "over-reacting"?

When my dear 23-month-old gets a gleam in his eye, he will grab an item of his sister's and take off running. BUT if she has a fit, he turns and comes RUNNING back to stop her tantrum, and sometimes even says his made-up word for "sorry".

I am not sure I like the cause-and-effect lessons going on here, but most of the time they play and share so nicely.

I adore your blog, Annie, glad I discovered you, keep up the good work :)

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

I just love your blog!
I struggle with the exact same thing you do - trying not to negate my children's feelings but at the same time getting them to understand that they really need to put things in perspective.

What I have noticed is that when my children are crying over say for example the drinking straw that got flattened a little bit or the cake that they can't have till after dinner, is that it's never really about the straw, or the cake. They just use that as a pretext to offload whatever frustrations and hurts that are inside.

Sometimes I am a good listener and let them release their tensions with loving acceptance and other days, I want show them the utter despair that others are living in and tell them to just BE GRATEFUL for what you have. I've done the old, "when I was a child..we never had xyz" so many times that I think they just switch off when I start that lecture.

January 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTasmiya

I got upset with my son when he wouldn't touch his homemade whole wheat blueberry pancakes and brought up homeless children again.

I think that with the benefit of a larger vision, our children seem to be ungrateful, as we probably all were at some point. I don't know if it makes them any more cognizant, one can hope, I suppose.

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAzucar

Just discussed this type of situation with my husband last weekend. We were watching a show in which one of the character's, who is now quite rich, was embarassed to tell her children about her poor upbringing. We both thought that was ridiculous. Teaching your children to appreciate what they have, either in realtion to others or what you had as a child, is an important part of parenting.

I can understand why you felt a little bad for bringing up Haiti. I imagine it feels like taking advantave of their suffering to get your kids to stop fighting, but I think it's a good thing to make them aware of the hardships in the world.

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

@Olivia: Were you watching Desperate Housewives? ;)

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I shouldn't laugh, but oh yeah, sounds familiar (and we only have one for a few more weeks LOL). It's not that it's trivial, but it's, yeah, familiar....

I haven't talked to DD about Haiti. I'm not sure where to start - I'm still too stunned by it myself. But yes, it needs to be said.

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJuliette

We don't watch the news in front of them on purpose, so the boys have no clue about Haiti, and I'm OK with that at this point. But I do struggle with teaching them to appreciate what we have. After all, I can talk to them about it, get their input on donations etc., but they can't fathom that people right here in Canada don't have a home or enough food to eat, nevermind not getting what they wanted for Christmas. Because they haven't experienced it. And while I "get" that they care about these things in the moment and are entitled to their feelings, I sure do sometimes want to yell "if THIS is the hardest thing in your life, you're pretty lucky mister!" :( Then again, that could likely be said about me and my own petty complaints...

(I'm curious, in 20/20 hindsight, would you have let her keep the sandals to keep the peace, considering she'd already willingly given other things? Let her see for herself they no longer fit once summer rolls around and donate at that point?)

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I'm just wondering what it was about the shoes that made them so special to your daughter.

I daresay on one level it's simply about the shoes, but on another level, there's more to it than just the shoes themselves.

I don't know a lot about child development (save for the one class I took in it), and less about child psychology, but I sense something bigger going on developmentally and the shoes simply represent this developmental process. The shoes are simply representing this. I do not know how old you child is, but at certain stages of development material possessions represent a part of the self-identity. Let me see if I can dig up what I mean. I know it's in my human development book.

I would wager, that perhaps at that point your child was not ready to part with her shoes even though she could understand they did not fit her. Perhaps in 6 months time, she'd have a different attitude about the shoes. The shoes would be less important. So, in essence, her resistance to letting go of her possession would be an ordinary developmental phase (not a long term prediction that she is all of a sudden materialistic and selfish), and yet pushing the issue had the effect of making them even more significant than if she naturally came to giving them up on her own.

Just my thoughts here...something I'm learning as I go. When I find the reference for what I'm talking about, I'll come back to share what I mean.

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRaising Smart Girls

Andrea & Raising Smart Girls:

In hindsight, I think what was so special about them was simply that she didn't feel she was "done" with them yet. She hadn't made the choice to part with them and she hadn't yet grown out of them. She had been wearing them and enjoying them that morning before getting changed to get ready to go to the airport.

She didn't get upset about the sandals until we had already given them to the maid. I certainly wasn't going to go back to her and say "actually, I need those sandals back because my daughter is crying". But if I had known that she was going to be so upset about it, I probably would still have done it but would have been more careful to hide it from her. She really would not have noticed the sandals were missing at all if we had hidden giving them away from her.

So, in hindsight, I would still have given then away, I just wouldn't have done it within her line of sight/hearing.

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

My friend had to get rid of something of her daughter's and the kid went hysterical. Kind of joking around I suggested to the 5 yr old she ask her mom to take a picture of her wearing it so they could keep the picture and give away the thing. The kid was totally happy about that and asks to see the pic sometimes.
No way you could have thought to do that with the brownies but maybe with sandals?

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGreen


January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

It raises a smile of course. I love such case studies! For what it's worth, my reaction:

Personally I have a lot of sympathy with what "raising smart girls" wrote. Certainly, to read a lot of moral content into the child's reaction is incorrect. I also feel that to cite moral considerations to belittle her reaction is insensitive and even manipulative. It tries to instil morality through guilt. This misses that you and she just possess different frames of reference in which the same action means different things. I would be more conscious of this and not appeal to the superiority of my own. I am not of course saying it isn't superior, but I think you do so not to cultivate moral feelings but to override her objections using your own authority as a parent - you are using a trump card. This is too easy. In such a context, I would have tried to find an agreement with her, using the kind of win-win creative thinking suggested by "Green". If I couldn't do that, I'd let her keep the sandals. This way she would know that her feelings counted and that there was not an authority script before which she was powerless. (Of course, I might override her if I understood her reaction differently, as trying to take control by gaming my indulgence - but that is not, I think, the case here.)

Clearly you couldn't go back to ask the sandals back and doubtless you gave them away innocently, i.e. you had no reason to anticipate her negative reaction. Still, it is clear that this episode has been totemized by her and there is an emotional content to it which remains unresolved. I think before offering to buy a new pair, in the absence of a more creative idea you should have said you didn't realize how much they meant to her and that if you had understood that, then even though you believe it would have been better to give them away, you would still have let her keep them. Then you can say all the other good stuff about thinking of others, how happy they would make the other little girl, how it's really not such a big deal. But I think you needed to apologize, and perhaps you still do. She didn't need the sandals, but she needed to know you cared about her feelings.

Fast forward to Julian and I am not quite clear on what's going on or whether these episodes are really organically connected or were just thrown together by an association of circumstance. I think he's just trying to defend himself. It can't be seen why he was initially so upset that the brownies had been finished. Let's just say there's a reason for that which we don't know. Appreciating this, I would try to get at the reason, but of course often you will not succeed. Then I would let him just abreact the emotions as he wishes to, so long as it does not endanger himself or anyone else. I see you are accepting his feelings but even though you let it happen there still seems to be a subtext that he should not express his feelings in a certain way, maybe that you think you must be doing something wrong if he is crying and screaming. It should be ok to cry and scream, we all need that sometimes. I'm not sure why you then felt the comments about Haiti were necessary, but I don't think they were necessary, not in the context of trying to communicate that they should feel guilty for the emotionality of their reaction to what to you are trivialities. I wouldn't have made this link. It again results only in a superego morality of guilt, not in a compassionate morality from the heart. The message is "you shouldn't feel as you do", and it invites them to reject their feelings.

Well of course it is the kind of scenario and reaction we all have all the time and there is no need to feel bad about it, but if we stop by it and analyze it, as you commendably invite us to, then those would be my feelings about it. What our children need is love and acceptance, not moral education and in particular not in relation to abstract matters that they are too young to appreciate. When they are grounded in love and self-confidence, compassion will come naturally.

Keep up the great blog!

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Ah! I wasn't thinking you had handed them directly to the maid. No, couldn't ask for them back, for sure.

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea


Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I'm pretty sure that we did apologize to her at the time for not knowing how much the sandals meant to her and validated her feelings too. But it was one of many things we said, trying to find the right words to help her deal with the situation. Many of which were probably not useful in retrospect.

With regards to Julian, I think he was just trying to defend and deflect. With regards to why he was so upset that the brownies were finished...well...he really likes brownies and perhaps Emma and Daddy should have saved him one or even half of one, but again hindsight is 50/50.

I've learned a lot by discussing the situation.

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

In keeping consistent with Sean's comment, I have to suggest the book PET (Parent Effectiveness Training) by Thomas Gordon. My husband and I read the book and also took the course through the Gordon Institute. One of the basic premises is that when children have these kinds of meltdowns it is because a need of theirs is not being met. For example, perhaps your daughter feels a need to look nice (perhaps the esteem row in your pyramid?) and those sandals helped her fulfill that need. (Not that I'm suggesting that really is her need, but I'm at the office and can't think of a better example off the top of my head ;) There is a lot of detail in the book on HOW to do what Gordon calls "Active Listening", which is basically what Sean suggests - speak to the child's emotions without judgment or evaluation. My one year old isn't verbal yet, but nonetheless we have been practicing what we can with him, and even more so we have been practicing on each other. I can't tell you if the skills will stop meltdowns in their tracks for young children, but boy I'll tell ya, when my husband gets it right and really *hears* my emotions, it's like a weight lifts off my chest and the negative feelings evaporate. He describes the feeling the same way when I 'get it right'. I'm really optimistic and excited about the potential to help my son work through his negatative feelings using active listening. I'd love to hear your perspective on Gordon's ideas if you ever have a chance to read it!

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShana

Shana, don't know the book but you make a great point. How often have we had arguments with our partners over matters no less absurd or trivial? Unmet childhood needs still seeking to be met ie present. Dealing with childish conflicts between adults requires much the same skills. It's a thrilling liberation when you figure this out. It's great for the kids too.

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersean

This completely cracked me up! It sounds exactly like being in my car!
My daughter is 4 and gift giving is her love language. Well, that is when it's not her clothes or shoes! Twice a year we go in and thin down the clothes. She always gets so stinking mad because her FAVORITE shirt is in there!! She does not care that it is too small!! We feel Emma's pain in a big way!!

January 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDee Stafford

[...] the children who are not as lucky as they are. That will include those suffering from famine, war, natural disasters, slavery and the most horrific human initiated violence and genocide. They will learn, so that they [...]

Boy, have we been there. I especially dislike the baiting that they do to each other (mine are 7 and almost 4.) I will not tolerate it. I'd rather send them both to their rooms if they can't get along. No mean teasing, no name-calling, no physical violence. Like you, I listen to their concerns, but usually end up telling them I don't care how it started as long as it ends. I try to enforce the idea that they are best friends, that they'll be friends forever, and that they need to take care of each other.

I keep remembering what happened in DH's family when he was growing up. Fights were not really squashed, but often encouraged. I watched a home video of my FIL encouraging DH and his brother to HIT each other, like boxers. They were small children, as well. Really terrible and selfish behavior. Needless to say, DH has almost no relationship with his siblings.

My mother would make us hold hands and sit in a corner together if we started fighting.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarina

[...] is bum in German, which is of course hilarious if you're a kid). But they also hear about war, earthquakes, starvation, and murder. Yes, they've been listening with me to the news, from the initial [...]

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