Squabbling has a purpose
“While squabbling is irritating, it has a purpose.” At least that’s what a number of my parenting books tell me.
I find it helpful to reread these parenting manuals occasionally. You might think that after millennia of raising children, parenting would be instinctive for the human race. If that’s what you think, you don’t have children.
The reality is that our instincts about parenting have been leading us to make a mess of families for millennia. Some of the earliest stories we have about family dynamics reveal this. If you want to see how to breed sibling rivalries, just read the book of Genesis. Isaac did a great job with Esau and Jacob if his goal was to create a sibling rivalry so deep that their descendants would be at war for centuries. Jacob bred such an intense sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers that they sold Joseph into slavery and told Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. That’s what happens when we leave parenting up to following our instincts.
As I write this, my daughter is somewhere over the Pacific, returning from two weeks in China. This means that is has been two weeks since the boy and the girl have had to coexist under the same roof. They will be so happy to see each other that they will get along great. That will last for about two hours. Then I will have to remember that all important statement, “While squabbling is irritating, it has a purpose.”
My instinct when the children begin to squabble is to officiate. My instincts tell me that when they are fighting, something is wrong, and my job is to fix what’s wrong. If my car starts to make a screeching noise, I know it needs to be fixed. When my children start screeching at each other, it doesn’t mean something is broken. In fact, if the parenting manuals are correct, it means they are probably working as they should. They are learning to handle conflict, or working out their emotions, or setting personal boundaries. That, the experts say, is healthy. If I try to fix it, I will end up breaking it.
There are times when parents do have to step in. If there is a real possibility of physical harm, or if it turns into nasty name-calling, it is time to step in – not to settle the dispute, but to tell them they have to find a different way of working out their differences.
Only they know what they are really squabbling about. Parents may think they know. They may think they saw the whole thing. The reality is we usually have no idea. When we adjudicate, we risk making the mistakes of Isaac and Jacob. If my instincts tell me that I need to fix their screeching, my instincts are probably wrong. What I need to do is simply enjoy those precious two hours of harmony when the girl gets off the plane.
I have been a priest for 16 years. I spent the first four years in Minnesota and Wisconsin, six years on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, before becoming the pastor at Advent Episcopal Church in Westlake in 2010. If anyone would find it interesting I have a son and daughter, which I refer to as a matched set, a wife, a dog, and a cat.