When Children Fight: book review

When Children Fight, by Miriam Levi, was a very timely read for me this week. Sibling fights have been the perennial challenge in our house for a couple of years now; we have two girls, currently 7.5 and soon to be 6 who, as a friend of mine very aptly puts it, “will fight over dead air space”.

children-fight

“Do you imagine that nobody else’s kids fight the way yours do? “Hearing shrieks and screams, I stormed into the playroom ready to screech, ‘What’s going on here?!’ But stopped myself, remembering the lessons from Miriam’s workshop. Lo and behold – the next thing I heard was – silence!”

Don’t get me wrong, most days I really appreciate having two girls close together in age. It really simplifies things when doing school, crafts, or any special activities – most of the time they can do anything together (of course with expected age-appropriate differences). They also always have a playmate, which is especially important because in the area we currently live, there really aren’t very many girls close to their age, and as you know, not all children of the same age hit it off together.

The problem is, sometimes my two daughters don’t hit it off together either. There are few things more frustrating than a sudden episode of loud whining, screeching, name-calling, hitting, taunting, etc, especially when a baby or toddler is having a nap, or you are trying to get dinner done – and especially when, after digging in, you realize this fight is about some scrap of a chewed-on pencil, or because someone looked at someone not quite the right way.

First I’m ashamed of my children acting this way. Then I’m ashamed of myself for yelling.

Since we homeschool, sibling antagonism is exacerbated. Yes, pretty much all families with more than one child deal with sibling rivalry, not just the homeschooling ones, but because we are together so much more, problems can’t be brushed aside or misted over by lengthy breaks from each other. They must be dealt with, promptly and effectively.

So yes, you can imagine the title of Miriam’s book spoke right to me when I grabbed it from the library. I whizzed through it in two days – it’s a compact, practical, straightforward, easy-to-read Judaism-based guide to dealing with those draining and exhausting sibling fights. Miriam doesn’t dig deep into complicated psychological theories: she gives slice-of-life examples of unhealthy sibling dynamics and their solutions.

I think the most important thing I gleaned from When Children Fight is that I don’t need to interfere in every single fight, every single time. I can’t prevent all fighting; it will always be there at some level, and not every dispute will be settled in a 100% fair, harmonious way. That’s life. Try to let your children solve the problem themselves, Miriam says. I tried that, drawing a red line at hitting and offensive name-calling. I withdrew from trying to personally solve every dispute of “but I had it first” and “she will never let me use it”, and let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised by how creative my daughters can be at resolving their conflicts when they know they are on their own.

One thing I do have to say, though, is that this book is like a home first-aid medical kit: it contains some band-aids and iodine, but not things needed to treat more serious injuries. That is to say, it deals with a generally normal, well-functioning Jewish family where sibling dynamics are a little jarring. It doesn’t go into more complicated real-life issues such as severe, persistent disobedience, behavioral problems, ADD, or issues that spring when a family deals with trauma due to divorce, illness, or loss of a loved one.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed When Children Fight and no doubt will return to it for reference in the future.

* Illustration image: oliviamainville.com

The carefree childhood

I’m not sure whether I ever mentioned this, but one of my favorite authors is Gerald Durrell, the renowned zoologist. He traveled all around the world and wrote many books about all the places, people and animals he encountered, but what I love the most from his works are the books about his childhood on Corfu.

In the Corfu books, he describes a truly carefree childhood. He was sporadically educated at home by a number of private tutors, but overall had all the space and time he wanted to explore, invent, and give free reign to the primary and overwhelming interest of his entire life – animals. In his books, he reports more than once that he never really had much interest in anything else.

He was fortunate enough, however, to have what many children these days lack – a true zeal for something, a burning desire to learn, know, and do everything connected with his favorite pursuit. His thirst for knowledge prompted him to read all about animals; a fortunate idea to start a nature journal, planted by a wise friend, encouraged him to develop his writing skills; the practical care of his specimens involved measuring, counting, building cages etc, which taught him probably all the math he ever needed. In the context of the animal kingdom, he learned history and geography, and his roams around the island of Corfu usually involved meeting an entire host of interesting characters, which were later vividly portrayed in his autobiographic books.

Such an education would have been considered skewed and incomplete, not to mention shockingly undersupervised by many of today’s experts, but it was far better than most children can hope for today. A strong passion for something, if this something involves exploring the world and meeting people, and being introduced into life, is education in itself. It is far better than professionally planned, age-appropriate, well-balanced, well-rounded, but insipid and boring lessons received in a school setting and automatically disposed of by a caged brain. Gerald Durrell had the desire and freedom to learn, access to resources of learning, and the rest was done almost automatically. Life educated him.

And, something which is perhaps a little trivial but nevertheless important, he never forgot to return home for tea. His books are full of descriptions of family meals, of breakfast, lunch, and dinner eaten together, of family outings and family parties, of life lived together, even though each individual child was given the freedom to be, and do, and develop according to his unique personality. I’ve always loved the descriptions of Durrell’s mother in his books – she is portrayed as someone stern enough to keep a family together, but indulgent enough to give her (sometimes slightly eccentric) children room to grow, and easygoing enough to adjust to the flow of life with all its bends and twists.

This combination of flexible, non-compartmentalized education and good, stable home life produced an intelligent, talented, energetic, sparky individual with an enormous zeal for learning, good works, and life in general. Not all of us can be as talented. Not all of us can do things of such magnitude; but many children can likewise blossom, in a warm home setting, with freedom to be who G-d made them, and encouragement to do what they are good at.

I was a child when I read those books for the first time, and could relate to the author very well. I remember thinking with envy, I wish I could live like that. For various reasons, I did not, but I think the seed was planted then. I reached adulthood perceiving it as an axiom that schools, at best, contribute nothing to the education of those who already love to learn, read every book they can lay their hands on, and would like to try everything and know everything.