Reverse Engineering Strife

As I have mentioned before, our family needs a lot of positive bonding opportunities. The most detrimental force against our family connection is by far, strife. Strife frequently rears its ugly head as competition amongst the kids (stemming from each one’s personal insecurities).

Our children are very close in chronological age, but very different in emotional maturity levels, social skills, and abilities. While some have slow cognition and special education assistance to help them keep pace with their peers, others are managing dual language learning, music, or competitive sports. Additionally, self-esteem and control issues stemming from neglect complicate the matter further. Managing this diversity in a positive way is one of the most challenging aspects of raising our children.

Nitpicking, instigating conflict, bragging, patronizing, and holding siblings to impossible standards of perfectionism have been frequent problems. I categorize all of these behaviors as strife. At the end of the day, strife is out to destroy relationships and create divisions.

This sort of behavior often warrants isolation: Time outs, separate playing spaces, or in extreme cases, an evening pulling weeds in the backyard while the rest of us eat supper in peace. It is our responsibility as parents to make sure all the kids, even the troublemakers, feel connected to the family. On the other hand, it is also our responsibility to keep everyone else safe from a sibling’s insecurities and inability to emotionally regulate. This method of dealing with the behavior, however, is reactive. It is what we use when we have no time or resources to be more creative.

We prefer a more proactive approach, when feasible. We like to have siblings write notes of apology (or for those not yet literate, draw pictures) to each other. They read their notes to each other, stating specifically the act for which they are apologizing, and then verbally forgive each other, stating specifically what act they are forgiving. Sometimes we have them name something they appreciate about the other person. Creating positive connections is the goal.

One proactive activity that I have found consistently helps break through negativity and get everyone moving in a positive direction is making food together. I don’t know why this particular activity is so effective, but it has worked wonders for us on many occasions. I frequently use cooking and baking as family bonding experiences. I suspect that a large part of the success is due to the demand cooking places on cognitive functions: Measuring, counting, and organizing ingredients all lean heavily on math and logic. Additionally, it is a great opportunity to encourage executive function development; for our older kids, I like to give multi-step directions and challenge them to remember the details without constantly asking, “What do I do now?” As long as everyone is busy and involved in their task, there is little brain energy left for fighting with siblings. Additionally, I am very liberal about allowing taste tests along the way, only for those who are working hard and cooperating, of course. The positive reinforcement using the food right under their noses tends to be especially effective.

Basic kitchen pointers that may be helpful:

If you’ve never had a hands-on family cooking night involving all the kids, I’m going to tell you right out of the gate, your kitchen will be a disastrous mess. There’s no way around it. Embrace it. You can assign some cleaning tasks to the kids as you progress through the recipe(s) to help alleviate the situation.

Additionally, depending how many children are involved and how fast-paced they tend to be, you may need to work on multiple dishes simultaneously to keep everyone engaged. This can take some forethought and pre-planning. Austin, admittedly, finds the entire kids-in-the-kitchen endeavor fairly overwhelming. I, on the other hand, thrive in the general chaos and often assign him to help with some of the particularly messy tasks (like assisting the 5 year old in cracking eggs).

For littles, you can break down basic tasks into many steps and have each one take a turn. By way of example, take the juicing of a lemon: One child can find a lemon in the fridge, while another screws the lemon juicer together. An older child then cuts the lemon in half, and I come around to help the next child actually juice it. Also, two halves of a lemon means two can have a turn juicing.

Reiterate the differences between measuring implements. While I can mostly trust my eldest to put together basic recipes on his own, I still have to occasionally intervene regarding ‘teaspoon’ and ‘tablespoon’ errors. He is now old enough that we also converse about metric, even though we don’t commonly use the system.

Eat food together. Celebrate your hard work. Praise the kids for sticking with their tasks and help them feel like productive members of the family cooking team. Ask them to assess the food: What do they like? What would they change? What if we used sliced peaches instead of blueberries next time? Was that too much garlic? Can they taste the basil?

Don’t stress; perfection is not the goal. Above all, try to have fun!

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash