When my fourth child, Robyn, was learning to read, I thought it would be fun to help her remember some of her phonics sounds by connecting them to the names of her siblings.
Her older sister Emma's name seemed like the perfect way to remember the short-e sound and so we practiced and practiced. "E says 'eh' like Emma!" I really thought she understood.
Then one day Robyn was writing her letters and I asked her to spell "mud". She carefully wrote out:
M E D
I asked her to read what she had written. She said "mmmmuuud".
I pointed to the middle letter. I asked her "What sound does this letter make?"
She confidently said, "Uh! Like U-U-Ummuh!"
If I had just said, "No, dear. That's not the correct letter. Erase that. Write this letter instead," we would have missed two important opportunities.
First, I would have missed realizing how the misunderstanding began. I wouldn't have appreciated that she was actually doing exactly the right thing ... according to her own understanding of how things worked. She actually understood how phonics worked. She correctly identified what sound she needed. And she picked the exact letter that she thought made that sound. It was just that one little piece of information that needed tweaking.
Secondly, Robyn would have missed the opportunity to understand how the misunderstanding began and the difference the correct information made. If I had simply told her what was wrong and what was right, she wouldn't have any new information to incorporate going forward.
She'd know what she did was wrong, but without any idea why or how to do better.
Mediating Sibling Conflict with Good Questions
Unfortunately as parents, we often treat sibling conflict in the same way. We're quick to call out our children's missteps. We may even tell them how we think they should be handling the problem.
But how often do we take the time to ask good questions? Thoughtful questions are so important. They help us to:
- Clearly understand our children's thought process
- Guide them to a clearer understanding of healthy interactions
We ask good questions not as a prosecuting attorney cross-examining a witness, but as a doctor gathering information about symptoms to prescribe the most helpful treatment.
Good Questions Get to the Heart
Lawyers in a criminal trial, or police officers who investigate the crime may be interested in "the facts, just the fact". But we as parents are interested in far more.
We are interested in hearts. Motives. Emotions. Reactions. Reasoning.
Good questions not only help to bring information to the surface so that we can see it clearly, but so that our kids can see it clearly, too.
Here are some suggestions to get you started.
1. What did [your sibling] do that hurt or upset you?
When children are bickering, they are often arguing about a theoretical idea or character concept. "He is so annoying." "She doesn't keep the rules of the game." "He's always messing up our stuff."
You can't move forward based on general character assignation. You need to begin by getting down to the specifics of this one incident so you can talk through it. What actually happened?
Related Question: Do you think you did anything that hurt or upset him/her?
2. What do you wish [your sibling] had done?
Help them to consider (and seek to understand) what was upsetting or hurtful about the sibling's words or behavior by asking them to contrast it with what actually happened.
Sometimes we assume we know why a behavior was upsetting, but finding out how they wish a problem had been handled can sometimes reveal a slightly different angle.
Related Question: How do you think he/she wishes you would have responded?
3. Did you show [your sibling] how you would like to be treated?
We're all familiar with the "Golden Rule". Jesus said in Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
Ask your child if he'd be comfortable with his behavior in this situation being used as a template for how he'd like others to treat him.
Related Question: Do you think the way he/she treated you is the way he/she would want to be treated by others?
4. What were you afraid would happen if you did that?
Now we get to the crux of the matter. Your child knows how he'd like to be treated, but he didn't behave that way in this situation.
Why not? What fear prevented him from ... speaking gently, asking for permission, considering someone else's needs, etc.
Acknowledging and addressing these fears can help to lower the threat-level of working through the problem because they know that you are aware and can address those concerns.
Related Question: What do you think he/she was afraid would happen in this situation?
5. Do you love [your sibling]?
Maybe you're already predicting that the immediate answer to this question will be an unhelpful and conversation-ending, "No!"
That might be the case. But this is a great time to discuss or remind your children what "love" is. Love isn't about warm, fuzzy feelings. It's about doing what is in the best interest of another.
We do it because that's what God has called us to do and, most importantly, because that's what He has done for us.
"But love your enemies, and do good ... Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful."
Luke 6:35a, 36
Remind your children that we often behave inconsistently with how we really feel deep down. Yes, we can hurt people we really love.
Related Question: Do you think he/she really loves you?
6. What can you do to heal the hurt in your relationship?
If your children know how they'd like to be treated and can see how that differs from how they behaved in this situation, lead them in a conversation about what steps can be done to repent and reconcile, or to be willing to offer forgiveness.
Teach them to apologize backwards.
Related Question: What do you wish he/she would do to heal the hurt in your relationship?
Ask Good Questions, Use Good Listening Skills
Asking good questions is a good first step. But if you expect to get honest, sincere answers to your questions, the way you listen is just as important to the questions you ask.
The best way to show that you've listened? Summarize what you've heard in kind, respectful language.
"So your sister didn't listen when you asked her not to use your markers and that felt really frustrating to you?"
When we help our kids to feel heard and understood, we lay a strong foundation of trust that we can build on as we guide and instruct our children in healthy sibling interactions.
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Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.