Bickering Just Part of Group Dynamic

When school let out, I was excited about summer, but that's because I had forgotten about the bickering.

With four children at home, bickering among my youngsters obviously is a year-round issue. Nevertheless, the high season for bickering is late summer, coincidental with the “dog days,” when tempers and temperatures generally flare and three months of togetherness wears like sand in your swimsuit.

On any given morning, bickering ensues before breakfast with a meaningless debate about who gets “the good chair” to watch cartoons.

Then it's a quick tussle over the morning meal — who got the last “everything” bagel and which lucky sibling gets the remaining Lucky Charms.

When I assign kitchen chores (this isn't exactly heavy labor — just unloading and reloading the dishwasher), sparks fly over who had this job yesterday and the day before and who will do it tomorrow and next Tuesday.

There's a rule about bickering: The intensity of the argument increases disproportionately with the importance of the subject. Ergo, the topic that causes the most vitriolic — albeit empty — bickering is about the seating arrangement in the van. Seriously.

Anyone with more than one child knows what I mean.

Who sits where in the van has consumed more emotional energy than all subjects of debate combined — and with literally a hundred opportunities each week to jockey for position, I might listen to bickering over this non-issue up to a dozen times a day.

Like now, for instance. I'm sitting here with the motor running, adjusting the rearview mirror while waiting for the gang to appear in bathing suits and flip-flops for a trip to the pool. There's room for one child in the front passenger seat, two in the middle section and a fourth in “the way back.”

Because it's just a 10-minute drive, the fighting will be particularly fierce.

One by one, they trickle out of the house and into the garage, past the shoe baskets where the flip-flops should be (but usually aren't — a topic for another day) and into the van. The rule is that the first one in goes to “the way back.” It seemed like a logical rule when I made it. We would fill the car from the rear to avoid crawling over the other passengers — but this is the reason nobody wants to be the first one in, which probably also is why I'm sitting in an empty van.

As often happens, my children ignore the rule. One of the older girls gets in front, and the next two out of the house occupy the captain's chairs in the center of the van. The last one out is miffed, thinking she had waited long enough to get one of the “good seats.” She begins her offensive with that trusty opener, “They always sit in the middle.”

By now, I'm tired of waiting and even more impatient with the incessant arguing, so I don't enforce the “way back” rule. Instead, I apply arbitrary parental problem solving to stop the volley of snippy remarks. “Hey, you snooze, you lose.” With that, we're off to the pool.

Once, in an effort to curb the conflicts, I tried assigned seats. It lasted about a week because I couldn't remember who was supposed to sit where and when I had said I would rotate the assignments.

Besides, I've come to realize that for siblings, bickering actually is a form of bonding. Face it, they're not about to engage in some hokey made-for-TV sibling lovefest (think “The Brady Bunch” forming a band). So instead, they foster an intense emotional bond by shooting each other dirty looks and sneers.

By the time we reach the pool and stake out a few lounge chairs, my tolerance for testiness has reached an end. When Katie and Betsy exchange caustic comments over possession of a chair, I declare an end to all sibling communication. “One more nasty exchange and we're going home” (and thanks for spoiling my happy mood — but I don't say this).

They look at me in stunned disbelief. “Mom — we're just kidding with each other. Lighten up.”

Just kidding? How am I supposed to tell the jokes from the loathful disdain? It all sounds the same to me.

Sure enough, in a matter of minutes, all four of my children are in the pool, splashing and swimming together. The tension and irritability from the van seem to have dissolved in the cool blue water. I have no idea why they suddenly are friends again, but I'm not complaining.

In my dreams, they never would fuss about insignificant issues such as seating arrangements in the van. They would just pile in, grateful that we have a van — not to mention that it is piloted by a driver who takes them everywhere they need to go.

They would offer the rest of the Oreo-cookie ice cream to each other instead of fighting over it until it melts.

They would say things like, “Could you move over a little?” while walking in the mall instead of “Get out of my way” as if they have encountered a cockroach.

They even would realize that most of their fights could be avoided with the simple exercise of manners and courtesy.

In short, they would treat each other like strangers instead of siblings.

Then again, without all their bickering, they wouldn't be so close, would they?

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 19 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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